Black People : Angola Three: 30 Years in Solitary

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    Angola Three: 30 Years in Solitary
    The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Known as "The Farm," the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the largest prison in the United States. Around three-quarters of its inmates are African-American. According to the Academy-Award-nominated documentary The Farm, 85 percent of the inmates who are sent to Angola will die there.

    Angola is an 18,000-acre complex of antebellum plantations that the state of Louisiana purchased and converted into a prison around the turn of the century. The penitentiary is called Angola because most of its former slaves came from the African country of the same name. Angola still operates on the plantation model. Prisoners perform back-breaking labor, harvesting cotton, sugar cane, and other crops from dawn to dusk.

    In the early 1970s, Angola was known as the most brutal prison in the United States, with stabbings an almost-daily occurrence. Armed "inmate guards" patrolled the prison, and they frequently used their state-issued rifles to settle scores with other inmates, sometimes at the behest of Angola officials. On one occasion, a prisoner died after five men were locked together in a sweltering isolation cell, without food or water, during the hottest days of summer. Dozens of bodies are rumored to be buried in the swampland where Angola borders the Mississippi River.

    Among the men who have been marooned at Angola are Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, and, until recently, Robert King Wilkerson. Of the world's political prisoners, few have been held in solitary confinement for as long as they have: nearly 30 years. All three men initially arrived at Angola with sentences for unrelated robberies, and a dedication to political activism. Wallace and Woodfox founded a chapter of the Black Panther Party at Angola. Their activism made them targets of the all-white prison administration. In 1972, in an effort to stop their organizing, prison officials concocted murder charges against Woodfox and Wallace and placed them on permanent lockdown. Relying on the paid-for testimony of prison snitches, Angola officials won convictions against the two men, who received sentences of life without parole. Later in 1972, when Wilkerson arrived at Angola, his reputation as an activist preceded him, and he was immediately placed in solitary. Subsequently he was charged with and convicted for a murder he did not commit, even though the actual killer admitted he acted alone in self-defense.

    The Formation of the Black Panther Party at Angola
    In 1971, Woodfox and Wallace organized the Black Panther Party at Angola. Woodfox had joined the Party in New York, where he had fled after a daring 1969 escape from the courthouse in New Orleans. After spending time imprisoned under an assumed name in New York, where he helped organize several rebellions in the New York City correctional system, Woodfox, along with his newfound politics, was extradited back to Louisiana. Wallace became a Panther while he was incarcerated at the New Orleans Parish Prison with the political prisoners known as the "New Orleans Panther 12." When they were shipped off to Angola, Woodfox and Wallace took the Black Panther Party with them.
    The Angola Panthers not only challenged the prison administration, but they also organized to end aspects of the inmate social order that hindered prisoner unity and played into the hands of the guards. The Panthers risked their lives to protect younger and weaker inmates from the rape, prostitution, and sex slavery that pervaded prison life. As Woodfox puts it, "It wasn't much help to go to the security because most of the security people were condoning that type of activity. They would benefit from it because they would get money or favors for allowing rapes to happen. Some of the guards themselves would be involved in the rapes."

    The Panthers worked to mend the schism between black and white prisoners that the prison officials manipulated to their advantage, a difficult feat considering that the prisoner housing, dining halls, and worksites were still racially segregated, with privileged living arrangements and work assignments going to white prisoners. The BPP also exposed the widespread corruption of the people who ran Angola, many of whom came from families that had lived on state land and had worked at the prison for several generations. Guards often diverted food, grown by the prisoners for their own consumption, to their own families and friends or sold it in town.

    The administration of the prison responded to the rise of the Panthers by filling its isolation units with activist prisoners. The associate warden of the prison, Hayden Dees, testified in court proceedings to the need to keep "a certain type of militant or revolutionary inmate, maybe even a Communist type," on permanent lockdown.

    Indeed, Woodfox and Wallace believe they were targeted for prosecution and long-term lockdown because of their organizing.

    "I think the fact that they were never able to break my spirit or Herman Wallace's spirit, the fact that they could not shake our political beliefs or convictions, contributed to the reason why we were held in CCR [Closed Cell Restricted, or solitary confinement]," Woodfox says.

    The Murder of Brent Miller and the Convictions of
    Woodfox and Wallace
    The April 17, 1972, killing of Officer Brent Miller took place in the context of this politically - and racially - charged atmosphere. Just the day before, on April 16, a wooden guard shack had been firebombed and the guard inside was burned.

    On the morning of April 17, there was a "buck," or work stoppage, in the kitchen, where inmate workers were protesting their punishing 16-hour shifts. Inmates arrived at breakfast, only to be told to return to their dormitories until food could be served. Within a short time, the buck had been resolved, and the inmates were ordered back to the dining hall. During the inmates' second trip to breakfast, the Pine 1 dormitory was emptied of all but a few inmates and a guard, Brent Miller. By the end of breakfast, Miller lay dead on the floor of Pine 1 in a pool of his own blood, 32 stab wounds in his body.

    In the days following the murder, prison officials terrorized Angola's black population. Interrogations continued night and day. There were mass beatings. Prisoners with Afro hairstyles — viewed, correctly, by officials as a political statement — had their hair forcibly shorn. For two days and nights, prisoners withstood this abuse, and officials learned nothing about the murder.

    Only one inmate, a man named Hezekiah Brown, claimed to have personally witnessed the killing. According to former Angola warden Hilton Butler, "Hezekiah was one you could put words in his mouth." Initially, Brown told investigators he had not seen the murder. Two days after the murder, however, Brown was awakened sometime after midnight and confronted by most of the Angola administration, who told him that they could place him at the scene of Miller's murder (which took place near his bed). The institutional files of several Angola inmates, including Woodfox and Wallace, were arrayed before him. Terrified that he would be charged with the murder if he did not provide information, Brown picked out the files of Woodfox and Wallace and and accused them of the murder. He also named Chester Jackson. Several days later, under pressure from authorities, Brown also named a prisoner named Gilbert Montegut as one of the killers. Today, two former Angola wardens, C. Murray Henderson and Hilton Butler, have now admitted that Montegut was framed; Brown was pressured into naming him by. Over the years, Woodfox and Wallace have obtained documentation proving that prison officials bribed Brown into giving statements against Woodfox, Wallace, Jackson, and Montegut.

    Woodfox, alone, was tried and convicted by an all-white jury. Later, Wallace and Montegut were tried together. On the second day of their trial, Chester Jackson walked into court after the lunch break and sat down at the prosecution table, announcing that he had struck a deal with the state and was going to confess to the crime and testify against Wallace and Montegut. After being allowed only a half-hour to regroup, defense attorney Charles Garretson was forced to cross-examine Jackson, his own client.

    Wallace was convicted, but Montegut, who was lucky enough to have a security officer for an alibi witness, was acquitted. (Wardens Henderson and Butler now claim that Montegut was falsely charged with murder by Associate Warden Hayden Dees, who wanted to discredit Warden Henderson In exchange for testifying against Wallace and Montegut, Jackson was allowed to plead guilty to a charge of manslaughter.

    For the next two decades, Woodfox and Wallace, from their isolation cells, struggled to continue their activism. Over the years, they have helped hundreds of inmates with their legal cases. Until inmate-to-inmate mail was recently banned, they even helped inmates at a nearby women's prison with their legal work. In November 1998, while Woodfox was away from Angola awaiting trial, Wallace got nearly every inmate on Louisiana's death row to sign a petition in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

    The Case of Robert King Wilkerson
    Like Herman Wallace, Robert King Wilkerson was recruited into the Black Panther Party in the Orleans Parish Prison. He arrived at Angola in 1972, soon after Officer Miller was killed. Angola officials placed him directly into solitary confinement. It seems most likely that he was placed on lockdown because of his reputation as an activist prisoner. The authorities, however, gave him a different reason: they told him that he was assigned to segregation because he was "under investigation," although they would not tell him what they were investigating. Some 19 years later, perhaps by accident, the classification board told him that he was being investigated for the Miller killing, even though he was not yet at Angola when the murder took place. For 28 years, Angola's classification committee reviewed Wilkerson's placement in CCR every few months. Each time, they told him that his continued confinement in isolation is justified by the fact that he is "under investigation."

    Wilkerson's original sentence for armed robbery and escape expired years before his actual release; he would have been a free man if Angola officials hadn't concocted charges that could have kept him in solitary confinement until he dies. On June 10, 1973, a fight broke out on CCR's B Tier (where Wilkerson lived) between two inmates, Grady Brewer and August Kelly. Both men produced knives; August Kelly was stabbed to death. Eleven of the tier's 14 inmates had been out of their cells at the time of the fight, which took place amid a scene of mass confusion. All 11 inmates were indicted for the murder. Charges against nine were later dropped, but indictments against Wilkerson and Brewer remained.

    When the case proceeded to trial, Brewer acted disruptively. The judge responded by shackling both defendants and having their mouths duct-taped shut in front of the jury. Wilkerson and Brewer were both convicted, almost entirely on the basis of two inmates' testimony. In 1974, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed Wilkerson's conviction, ruling that it had been improper for the trial judge to gag Wilkerson in response to Brewer's outbursts.

    Wilkerson was tried again in 1975. Just as before, Wilkerson was tried in St. Francisville, the closest town to Angola, and a place where most of the jury pool is composed of prison employees, their families, and their friends. This time, one of the state's inmate witnesses refused to testify. Brewer, Wilkerson's erstwhile codefendant, took the stand and testified that he alone had stabbed Kelly, in an act of self-defense (Kelly was known to have killed at least two other inmates). Nevertheless, on the basis of one inmate's testimony, and in the face of compelling exculpatory evidence, the jury re-convicted Wilkerson. Once again, he received a sentence of natural life, meaning life without the possibility of parole.

    In the years since, the case against Wilkerson has further evaporated. Both inmates who originally testified against him have recanted their testimony. One, Charles Lawrence, signed an affidavit swearing that his testimony against Wilkerson was false and "given under circumstances of extreme duress." He further swore that his trial testimony was prepared by former Angola warden Richard H. Butler, and that officials told him that if he did not testify he would be tried for the murder and would be given the death penalty.

    The other inmate, William Riley, signed an affidavit, "being in full awareness of the penalty for perjury," in which he admitted his trial testimony was false. Riley swore that he had been in the shower when Kelly was killed, meaning he had not been in a position to witness the crime.

    Finally, Wilkerson's codefendant, Grady Brewer, has added to his trial testimony an affidavit in which he swears that he killed August Kelly in self-defense, and that "Robert King Wilkerson had nothing to do with the death of August Kelly and he was not involved in the murder."

    In 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals granted Wilkerson a new trial because African-Americans and women had unconstitutionally been excluded from the grand jury that indicted him. Only months later, however, the court decided to rehear the case, and they reversed their previous decision, taking away his new trial. The court did not deny that Wilkerson's grand jury had been comprised exclusively of white men; it merely ruled that the technicalities of habeas corpus law provided the court with an excuse for not even considering his claims.

    In 2000, after years of legal struggles, the Fifth Circuit court finally ruled in Wilkerson's favor. Agreeing with his position on a very complex issue of habeas corpus law, the court remanded his case to the lower federal court for an inquiry into whether Wilkerson was "actually innocent." A positive answer would result in the reversal of his conviction. Sensing defeat — the lower court had previously ruled that Wilkerson was innocent — the state offered him a plea bargain. If he would plead guilty to accessory after the fact, a relatively minor offense, the state would agree to a sentence of time served and Wilkerson would go home.

    Because he had played no role in the murder of August Kelly, Wilkerson was reluctant to admit guilt to any charge. However, after agonizing discussions with family, friends, and his longtime attorney, Christopher Aberle, Wilkerson decided to accept the deal. The state, however, would not let him go quietly. On Feb. 8, 2001, the appointed day, Wilkerson arrived in court, only to find out that the state was now insisting that he plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. The District Attorney's office, it seems, feared that letting Wilkerson off too easily might subject them to a very expensive lawsuit.

    In the end, with a large contingent of family and friends watching from the courtroom gallery, Wilkerson decided to go through with the deal. He entered his plea, returned to Angola for processing, and later that afternoon, walked out of Angola's front gate a free man.

    Woodfox's Conviction is Reversed
    In 1992, a Louisiana court agreed that Woodfox's original conviction had been obtained in violation of the United States Constitution because his lawyer had failed to challenge the grand jury that had indicted him, which was illegally impaneled through a process that excluded African-Americans and women. The court granted Woodfox a new trial.

    Because Woodfox's original sentence, 50 years for armed robbery, was about to expire, the state convened a new grand jury to reindict him for Miller's murder. One of the members of the new grand jury was Anne Butler, who happened to be the wife of C. Murray Henderson, the warden who had presided over the original investigation of the Miller murder. Together, Butler and Henderson had authored Dying to Tell, a book that chronicles Henderson's tenure as warden. The book's opening chapter, entitled "Racist Pigs Who Hold Us Captive," is about the Miller case, and it argues that Woodfox and Wallace committed the murder.

    During later court proceedings, the District Attorney testified that he allowed Butler to use her book to make a presentation to the other grand jurors about the Miller murder. Butler herself testified that she passed her book around, and some of the grand jurors may have read from it before deciding to indict Woodfox.

    Despite Woodfox's objections to the existence of a prejudiced, interest-conflicted grand juror, Judge Bruce Bennett refused to quash the indictment, ruling that, "There's nothing wrong with a grand juror having some knowledge of a case, even if they happened to have written a book about the case."

    (As a result of a bizarre turn of events a few miles outside of Angola, Warden Henderson himself is now in prison. In January 1999, Henderson, aged 78, was sentenced to 50 years for shooting his wife, author and grand juror Anne Butler).

    Woodfox's Retrial
    After several years of legal wrangling over evidentiary and other issues, Woodfox's trial finally began on Dec. 7, 1998. Because of the notoriety of the case in West Feliciana Parish, where Angola is situated, the court granted Woodfox a change of venue. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that there was no chance of the trial taking place in neutral territory, as the proceedings were moved to the small town of Amite, about an hour east of Baton Rouge. It just so happens that much of Brent Miller's family lives near Amite, and Miller's body is buried there. The area is known as a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity.

    When the trial opened, the courtroom was packed with Woodfox's supporters. During the trial, his family was flanked by former Black Panthers from Louisiana and California, local community activists, members of New Orleans' Crescent Wrench anarchist collective, Ashaki Pratt (wife of Geronimo), Luis Talamantez of the San Quentin Six, and representatives of Baltimore Anarchist Black Cross.

    When jury selection was complete, Woodfox faced a panel of 10 whites and two African-Americans. In the first two days of trial, the prosecution began presenting its case. Woodfox and his supporters were elated as the state's evidence seemed to disintegrate.

    First, the prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Julie Cullen, called an inmate named Leonard "Specs" Turner to testify. Cullen expected Turner, to whom even guards referred, under oath, as a "snitch," to testify that he had seen Woodfox at the scene of the crime. When Cullen questioned him, however, Turner said he had seen nothing and had no information implicating Woodfox in the murder.

    Over the defense's motion for a mistrial, the judge allowed Cullen to introduce an unsigned, undated statement, in a guard's handwriting, in which Turner allegedly said that he saw Woodfox and Wallace participate in the murder. Warden Henderson, straight from lockup himself, appeared in court and testified that he had never heard of the statement, even though, if it were legitimate, it would have represented the first break in the Brent Miller murder investigation. Henderson, rather, said that he had met with Turner two nights after the murder and told him that, "If you don't give me some information . . . I'm gonna call the Parole Board and see that you do the rest of your eight years, flat." In response, Turner said he didn't know who had killed Miller, but he thought that Brown might. Despite the fact that Turner denied under oath having any information about the crime, Judge Bennett allowed Cullen to introduce the statement to the jury.

    To add to the embarrassment of Turner's testimony, the state's forensic investigators were forced to acknowledge that they acted with either gross incompetence or blatant misconduct. At issue was their handling of a bloody fingerprint found at the scene of the crime. Investigators found what they admit was an identifiable bloody fingerprint near Miller's body, but when they discovered that it didn't match any of their chosen defendants, they never bothered to try to find out whom the print belonged to. If the print had been left there by an inmate, finding out who left it would not have been difficult, since officials had every inmate's fingerprints on file. The state, however, made no effort to trace the print.

    In an attempt to muddle the issue for the jury, the prosecution called another fingerprint expert to testify that what the state had always admitted was a bloody fingerprint might really be an unidentifiable palmprint. Cullen did not notify the court or the defense about the existence of this witness until less than an hour before she called her to testify, in violation of court rules that require attorneys to give opposing counsel fair notice of witness testimony. Cullen told the judge that she had come up with the palmprint theory 30 minutes before the witness was called, but on cross-examination the witness admitted to the defense that she had informed Cullen of the theory nearly two years earlier, in April 1997. The defense moved for a mistrial on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct, but the court denied the motion.

    Near the close of its case, the prosecution presented the testimony of its star "eyewitness," Hezekiah Brown. Since Brown is now dead, his 1973 testimony was read to the jury. Brown testified that on the morning of the murder he and Miller were alone in Pine 1 dormitory, but his version of events contradicted the physical evidence in several crucial respects.

    The final nail in the coffin of Hezekiah Brown's credibility is the fact that prison officials paid him for his testimony. At Woodfox's 1973 trial, Brown unequivocally denied that he had been promised anything in exchange for his testimony: "Nobody promised me nothing," he testified. Prison records later obtained by Woodfox tell an entirely different story.

    An April 7, 1978, letter written by Angola warden Frank C. Blackburn to Secretary of Corrections C. Paul Phelps confirms that Warden Henderson agreed to pay Brown "one (1) carton of cigarettes per week," as part of a "commitment made to him in the past with respect to his testimony in the Brent Miller murder case." In his reply, Phelps agreed that the cigarette ration should be disbursed, because "Warden Henderson made the original agreement with Brown."

    For a man like Hezekiah Brown, however, a weekly carton of cigarettes was small change compared to the promise of an early release. Only a few years before the Miller killing, Brown had been sentenced to death for aggravated rape. In 1971, that sentence had been commuted to a sentence of life without parole. On Feb. 15, 1974, only a month after Wallace had been convicted and sentenced to life without parole, Warden Henderson began writing letters in an attempt to secure immediate release for Brown. Over the next few years, Henderson intervened with a judge, the Director of Corrections, and the Board of Pardons, pleading Brown's case. He always cited Brown's service in the Miller case (in which "a white officer was killed by three black militants," he wrote) as the prime reason that release was justified. Other documents show that Henderson was joined in his crusade for Brown's freedom by the associate warden, the district attorney, the deputy sheriff, and several Angola guards. In 1986, Henderson's efforts bore fruit: Gov. Edwin Edwards (now a convicted felon himself) commuted Brown's sentence and released him from Angola.

    In addition to free cigarettes and clemency, there is compelling evidence that Brown was paid in cash. Prison records show that he entered Angola in 1971 with no money. Warden Henderson testified that Brown "didn't have any money at all, and he didn't earn any money at Angola. He had no relatives, or anybody that came to see him . . ." Upon release in 1986, however, Brown had $931.24. And, according to a 1974 article in a New Orleans newspaper called The Courier, Brown testified at Wallace's trial while wearing a new gold watch.

    In order to divert the jury's attention from its compromised witnesses and lack of physical evidence, the prosecution dredged up information about Woodfox's Panther past and used it as evidence that he was guilty of the murder. Before the trial, prosecutor Cullen had termed Miller's death a "hate crime" and "a racially-motivated Black Panther murder." In the courtroom, using tactics eerily similar to those enlisted against Mumia Abu-Jamal (Mumia's prosecutors told the jury in his case that they should sentence him to death because agreed with Mao Tse-Tung's maxim that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun"), Cullen introduced letters she said Woodfox wrote over 20 years ago, in which he allegedly spelled America "AMERIKKKA" and denounced the "white racist pigs" and "fascists" who ran Angola. To Cullen, this furthered her theory that the Black Panther Party was a racist organization dedicated to killing white people. Failing to acknowledge the Panthers' history of establishing children's breakfast programs, publishing an important community newspaper, or inventing the practice of "copwatching," Cullen was allowed to argure to the jury that Woodfox's membership in the organization constituted evidence that he was a murderer.

    At the close of the trial, Albert Woodfox took the stand in his own behalf. All of his supporters agreed that he was calm, sincere, and convincing. On cross-examination, Cullen repeatedly attempted to bully or trick him into making incriminating statements, but he stood firm. In deflecting one such question, Woodfox testified that he did not kill Brent Miller, and told Cullen, truthfully, "You know I didn't kill Brent Miller because you know I passed a lie detector test." During a post-trial interview with Pacifica radio, one of the jurors said that the jury was turned off by that statement, because polygraph evidence is inadmissible in court, and she felt that Woodfox was deliberately breaking the rules by trying to communicate such important information to the jury.

    On the final day of trial, over a dozen uniformed police and prison guards, along with several parish sheriffs, packed the courtroom. After closing arguments, the jury deliberated for only about five hours. In spite of the overwhelming lack of physical evidence, the fully-compromised credibility of the state's witnesses, and Woodfox's truthful polygraph examination and convincing testimony, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. After waiting two months, Woodfox was finally sentenced on Feb. 23, 1999, to natural life — meaning life without possibility of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence.

    Woodfox's return to Angola in March 1999 offered him an opportunity for a bittersweet reunion with his brothers, Wallace and Wilkerson, but their time together was short lived. In May 1999, following a peaceful hunger strike in which over 60 inmates protested worsening conditions and curtailed privileges, the Angola 3 were singled out as leaders and moved out of CCR. They were separated from one another in the horrific confines of Camp J, the prison's extreme punishment unit. In Camp J, inmates are confined to scorchingly hot cells for 24 hours on most days. Two or three times a week, they are allowed out of their cells to visit "the yard," an outdoor cage, unshaded and topped by razor wire. Despite the fact that inmates are placed into this cage alone, they nevertheless are forced to try to exercise with their hands shackled to a chain around their waists. Meals often consist of spoiled meat. All visits with lawyers and family are through a thick metal screen.

    In February 2000, after enduring eight months in Camp J, the Angola 3 were returned to the "non-punitive" solitary confinement of CCR. Woodfox and Wallace are continuing their struggle to prove their innocence. Both have petitions pending before various courts. If Louisiana officials have their way, Woodfox and Wallace will die in their isolation cells at Angola. Only through outside support — political, legal, and financial — will these courageous and principled men ever taste freedom again.

    For more information about the Angola Three, please visit:
    The National Coalition to Free the Angola 3.

    Angola 3: Free Speech Radio New Report
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