The Angola 3: punished for Black Pantherism?

When people heard about the punitive conditions that the US soldier Bradley Manning was enduring in prison in Virginia there was (rightly) an international outcry.

The same can be said – multiplied by nearly four decades – about Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, two US prisoners who’ve together spent nearly 80 years in solitary confinement. Yes, you read that correctly: 39 years each. In solitary confinement (in so-called “Closed Cell Restriction” units).

Nearly all of this colossal period of “lockdown” was at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka “Angola”). Along with a third man, Robert King, they were the “Angola 3”, focus of numerous campaigns over the years (partly because of their espousal of Black Panther politics). King was freed in 2001, having himself survived an unbelievable 21 years in solitary.

Unlike Manning, the Angola 3 were found guilty of crimes, including the murder of the Angola prison guard Brent Miller in 1972. However their responsibility for the killing is much-disputed (I’ll come back to this). Meanwhile, this is what their lockdown entails:

* confinement to cells (2m x 3m) for 23 hours a day
* “recreation” in an outdoor cage (1.8m x 4.5m) three times a week (weather permitting)
* four hours per week to take a shower or walk (alone) along a prison corridor
* no work or education
* no interaction with other inmates

What has kept Woodfox and Wallace in solitary all these years? Is it their perpetual dangerousness? Or could it be a toxic mix of racism and an underlying hatred of the Black Panthers? Take these remarks by the Angola prison warden Burl Cain in 2008:

“I would still keep [Albert Woodfox] in CCR [Closed Cell Restriction]. I still know he has a propensity for violence. I still know he is trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organise the young new inmates. I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict and I believe that. He has to stay in a cell while he’s at Angola.”

An ACLU lawsuit on the men’s case argues that W&W are in lockdown for their political beliefs. As a recent biography of Malcolm X reminds us, the US authorities have long regarded the Black Panthers as beyond the pale. At times the official attitude seems to have been: crush them by any means necessary.

There are two big issues. One is the shakiness of the original convictions. No physical evidence links the men to the murder (compare the Troy Davis case …), potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been lost, and testimony from other inmates is dubious (the main eyewitness was apparently bribed by prison officials and the state withheld evidence about the perjured nature of another inmate’s testimony). Meanwhile, a third witness later retracted what he said (again, echoes of Troy Davis).

The second big issue is that they’re still in isolation after a staggering 39 years, despite a good prison record (neither man has committed a serious disciplinary offence for decades). If this isn’t cruel and inhumane, I don’t know what is.

Check out this heartfelt video from Robert King, the former Angola 3 man (there’s also a full-length Samuel L Jackson-narrated doc called In The Land Of The Free, which I’m told is good), read the full Amnesty report  (12 pages) and take action by supporting an online petition to the Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Are you now or were you ever a Black Panther? If so, it could be eternal lockdown for you …

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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