Published on Friday, May 4, 2001
Wilkerson Free After 29 Years in Solitary
by Seth Sandronsky
Twenty-nine years. That’s how long Robert King Wilkerson was held in
solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit.
Wilkerson, 58, was freed Feb. 8. He was one of the Angola Three, African-American men accused, convicted and imprisoned in Louisiana.
The other two members of the Angola Three—Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox—remain in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, an 18,000-acre former plantation named for where the enslaved people had lived in Africa.
In 1970, Wilkerson received a sentence of 35 years for armed robbery. He had refused the prosecution’s offer of 15 years and went to trial instead.
“I was innocent,” Wilkerson said. “But I have no beef with the jurors who convicted me thinking that they were doing a good thing.”
Then, President Nixon was in the White House. He was striving to politically secure the South by criminalizing white youth and nonwhite people generally, many of whom participated in Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests.
In the meantime, the Black Panther Party attracted Wilkerson. The Panthers spoke to his conditions and those of other poor and oppressed people living under a system that robs the many of their common humanity.
Wilkerson fled custody. He was captured and given another eight years of prison time, but with no regrets.
“A slave has a right to escape,” he said.
Subsequently held in the Orleans Parish Prison, Wilkerson and the other prisoners there endured severe overcrowding, inferior food and no medical care. They rebelled against these brutal and brutalizing conditions.
In Nov. 1971, the prison administration removed the leaders of the uprising, including Wilkerson. He was subsequently classified into solitary confinement.
In April 1972, Wilkerson entered the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. For the next 29 years, he spent 23 hours a day in a tiny cell there.
Which is where Wilkerson, during his prolonged confinement, studied the past and current conditions of subjugation lived by Africans in America. The Panthers emphasized such self-education as a tool of liberation, he said.
In 1973, Wilkerson was convicted of murdering another prisoner at Angola. The prosecution’s sole evidence was the testimony of two prisoners.
Wilkerson and his co-defendant Grady Brewer were shackled with their mouths duct-taped shut during the trial.
Moreover, no cross examination of the prosecution’s two main witnesses was allowed, and no forensic evidence linking Wilkerson to the murder was found at the crime scene, he added. If the testimony of the prison guard on duty at the time of the murder would have been allowed, Wilkerson said that he would have been found innocent.
But that was not to be. Wilkerson was found guilty and given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Significantly, Brewer confessed that he murdered the prison guard alone in a 1975 retrial. Yet Wilkerson was again given a life without parole sentence.
Undaunted, Wilkerson kept filing legal petitions in appeals courts. Eventually, he was able to get an affidavit from both prisoners that they had given false testimony against him.
In time, Wilkerson was granted an evidentiary hearing by the U.S. Court of Appeals following the retraction of the witnesses’ testimony. Why did they lie? They were coerced by the Angola authorities.
The state wished to avoid an evidentiary hearing, and Wilkerson’s case was remanded back to a district court, where he was released after accepting a plea bargain. His release from prison was given a big boost by prison activists, his family and friends and his legal team, including attorney Scott Fleming.
One out but two in.
Wallace and Woodfox are still languishing in solitary at Angola. In 1972, they were convicted of murdering a prison guard there.
The prosecution’s case against the two of the Angola Three lacked any physical evidence connecting them to the crime, Wilkerson said. As in his case, the trials of Wallace and Woodfox saw such exculpatory evidence suppressed.
The three men believe that the prison authorities framed them for crimes for which they were innocent as a result of their forming the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers were targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program that sought to neuter radical movements by any means necessary.
“America does have political prisoners,” Wilkerson said.
The men had organized to improve conditions at Angola by abolishing prisoner rape, bettering race relations and improving prisoners’ living standards generally.
Last March, the ACLU filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on the Angola Three’s behalf, alleging that the men’s nearly 30 years of solitary confinement is in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment that prohibits such cruel and unusual punishment.
Oppression of prisoners is the rule at Angola, Wilkerson said. Take for example the 80 percent of the prison population that works for a wage of four cents per hour.
Angola the prison emerged from Angola the plantation after the Civil War. Theft of African Americans’ labor is the tie that binds both institutions.
“Angola is a slave ship that doesn’t sink,” performance artist Keith Antar Mason said.
But the prison did not sink Wilkerson’s spirit. He is now traveling around America speaking with people about his decades-long struggle in solidarity with Wallace and Woodfork from solitary confinement.
“I may be free of Angola but Angola will never be free of me,” Wilkerson said.
Seth Sandronsky <firstname.lastname@example.org>, is an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramentos progressive newspaper.