At the heart of Louisiana's prison system sits the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, a former slave plantation where little has changed in the last several-hundred years. Angola has been made notorious from books and films such as Dead Man Walking and The Farm: Life at Angola, as well as its legendary bi-annual prison rodeo and The Angolite, a prisoner-written magazine published within its walls. Visitors are often overwhelmed by its size -- 18,000 acres that include a golf course (for use by prison staff and some guests), a radio station, and a massive farming operation that ranges from staples like soybeans and wheat to traditional Southern plantation crops like cotton.
Recent congressional attention has again brought Angola into the media limelight. The focus this time is on the prison's practice of keeping some inmates in solitary confinement for decades, especially two of Angola's most well-known residents -- Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. Woodfox and Wallace are the remaining members of the Angola Three, political activists widely seen as having been interned in solitary confinement as punishment for their political activism.
Norris Henderson, co-director of Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a grassroots criminal justice organization in New Orleans, spent twenty years at Angola -- a relatively short time in a prison where 85 percent of its 5,100 prisoners are expected to die behind its walls. "Six hundred folks been there over 25 years," he explains. "Lots of these guys been there over 35 years. Think about that: a population that's been there since the 1970s. Once you're in this place, it's almost like you ain't going nowhere, that barring some miracle, you're going to die there."
Prisoners at Angola still do the same work that enslaved Africans did there when it was a slave plantation. "Angola is a plantation," Henderson explains. "Eighteen-thousand acres of choice farmland. Even to this day, you could have machinery that can do all that work, but you still have prisoners doing it instead." Not only do prisoners at Angola toil at the same work as enslaved Africans hundreds of years ago, but many of the white guards come from families that have lived on the grounds since the plantation days.
Nathaniel Anderson, a current inmate at Angola who has served nearly thirty years of a lifetime sentence, agrees. "People on the outside should know that Angola is still a plantation with every type and kind of slave conceivable," he says.
In 1971, the Black Panther Party was seen as a threat to this country's power structure -- not only in the inner cities, but even in the prisons. At Orleans Parish Prison, the New Orleans city jail, the entire jail population refused to cooperate for one day in solidarity with New Orleans Panthers who were on trial. "I was in the jail at the time of their trial," Henderson tells me. "The power that came from those guys in the jail, the camaraderie...Word went out through the jail, because no one thought the Panthers were going to get a fair trial. We decided to do something. We said, 'The least we can do is to say the day they are going to court, no one is going to court.'"
The action was successful, and inspired prisoners to do more. "People saw what happened and said, 'We shut down the whole system that day,'" he remembers. "That taught the guys that if we stick together we can accomplish a whole lot of things."
Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were members of the Black Panther Party, and as prison activists, they were seen as threats to the established order of the prison. From their first day, they were organizing among the other prisoners, conducting political education, and mobilizing for civil disobedience to improve conditions.
Robert King Wilkerson, like many inmates, joined the Black Panther Party while already imprisoned at Orleans Parish Prison. He was transferred to Angola, and immediately placed in solitary confinement (known at Angola as Closed Cell Restriction or CCR) -- confined alone in his cell with no human contact for 23 hours a day. He later found out he had been transferred to solitary because he was accused of an attack he could not have committed -- it had happened at Angola before he had been moved there.
In March of 1972, not long after they began organizing for reform from within Angola, Wallace and Woodfox were accused of killing a correctional officer. They were then moved to solitary, where they remained for nearly 36 years, until March of this year, when they were moved out four days after a congressional delegation arranged a visit to the prison. Legal experts have said this is the longest time anyone in the US has spent in solitary. Amnesty International recently said that "the prisoners' prolonged isolation breached international treaties which the US has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture."
Wilkerson, Wallace, and Woodfox became known internationally as the Angola Three -- Black Panthers held in solitary confinement because of their political activism. Wilkerson remained in solitary for nearly 29 years, until he was exonerated and released from prison in 2001. Since his release, Wilkerson has been a tireless advocate for his friends still incarcerated. "I'm free of Angola," he often says, "but Angola will never be free of me."
This history of struggle and resistance brings a special urgency to the case of the Angola Three. Kgalema Motlante, a leader of the African National Congress, said in 2003 that the case of the Angola Three "has the potential of laying bare, exposing the shortcomings, in the entire US system."
Wallace and Woodfox have the facts on their side. Bloody fingerprints at the scene of the crime do not match their prints. Witnesses against them have recanted, while witnesses with nothing to gain have testified that they were nowhere near the crime. There is evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, such as purchasing inmate testimony and not disclosing it to the defense. Even the widow of the slain guard has spoken out on their behalf. Most recently, their case has received attention from John Conyers, head of the House Judiciary Committee, and Cedric Richmond, chair of the Louisiana House Judiciary Committee, who has scheduled hearings on the issue to begin this month.
But this is more than the story of innocent men railroaded by a system. The story of the Panthers at Angola is both inspiring and shocking. It is a struggle for justice while in the hardest of situations.
"They swam against the current in Blood Alley," says Nathaniel Anderson, a current inmate at Angola who has been inspired by Wallace and Woodfox's legacy. "For men to actually have the audacity to organize for the protection of young brothers who were being victimized ruthlessly was an extreme act of rebellion."
Like many prisoners during that time, Norris Henderson was introduced to organizing by Black Panthers in prison, and later became a leader of prison activism during his time at Angola. The efforts of Wilkerson, Woodfox, Wallace, and other Panthers in prison were vital to bringing improvements in conditions, stopping sexual assault, and building alliances among different groups of prisoners. "They were part of the Panther Movement," Henderson tells me. "This was at the height of the Black power movement, we were understanding that we all got each other. In the night-time there would be open talk, guys in the jail talking, giving history lessons, discussing why we find ourselves in the situation we find ourselves. They started educating folks around how we could treat each other. The Nation of Islam was growing in the prison at the same time. You had these different folk bringing knowledge. You had folks who were hustlers that then were listening and learning. Everybody was coming into consciousness."
The US has the largest incarcerated population in the world twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners are here. If Louisiana, which has the largest percentage imprisoned of any US state, were a country, it would have by far the world's largest percentage of its population locked up, at well over one out of every 100 people. Nationwide, more than seven million people are in US jails, on probation, or on parole, and African Americans are incarcerated at nearly ten times the rate of whites. Our criminal justice system has become an insatiable machine -- even when crime rates go down, the prison population keeps rising.
The efforts of the Angola Three and other politically conscious prisoners represented a fundamental challenge to this system. The organizing of Wallace, Woodfox, and Wilkerson, though cut short by their move to solitary, had an effect that continues to this day.
Prison activism, and outside support for activists behind bars, can be tremendously powerful, says Henderson. "In the early 1970s people started realizing we're all in this situation together. First, at Angola, we pushed for a reform to get a law library. That was one of the first conditions to change. Then, we got the library; guys became aware of what their rights were. We started to push to improve the quality of food, and to get better medical care. Once they started pushing the envelope, a whole bunch of things started to change. Angola was real violent then, you had inmate violence and rape. The people running the prison system benefit from people being ignorant. But we educated ourselves. Eventually, you had guys in prison proposing legislation."
This was a time of reforms and grassroots struggles happening in prisons across the US. Uprisings such as the famous Attica Rebellion were resulting in real change. Today, many of the gains from those victories have been overturned, and prisoners have even less recourse to change than ever before. "Another major difference," Henderson explains, is that "you had federal oversight over the prisons at that time, someone you could complain to, and say my rights are being violated. Today, we've lost that right."
Working for criminal justice is work that benefits us all, says Henderson. "Most folks in prison are going to come out of prison," he states. "We should invest in the quality of that person. We should start investing in the redemption of people."
After decades of efforts by their lawyers and by activists, Wallace and Woodfox have been released from solitary, but the struggle continues. Wallace and Woodfox remain behind bars, punished for standing up against a system that has grown even larger and more deadly. And the abuse does not end there. "There are hundreds more guys who have been in [solitary] a long time too," Henderson adds. "This is like the first step in a thousand-mile journey."
Jordan Flaherty is an editor of Left Turn Magazine (www.leftturn.org), and a journalist based in New Orleans. Most recently, his writing can be seen in the anthology Red State Rebels, released this month by AK Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article is featured in the Summer 2008 issue of Left Turn Magazine, and this week's issue of New York's Indypendent (www.indypendent.org).