By Erwin James, The Guardian March 10, 2009
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In 1972, three men in a Louisiana prison were placed in solitary
confinement after a prison guard was murdered. Two of them are still there
– even though many believe they are innocent
Angola prison, the state penitentiary of Louisiana, is the biggest prison
in America. Built on the site of a former slave plantation, the 1,800-acre
penal complex is home to more than 5,000 prisoners, the majority of whom
will never walk the streets again as free men. Also known as the Farm,
Angola took its name from the homeland of the slaves who used to work its
fields, and in many ways still resembles a slave plantation today. Eighty
per cent of the prisoners are African-Americans and, under the watchful
eye of armed guards on horseback, they still work fields of sugar cane,
cotton and corn, for up to 16 hours a day. "You've got to keep the inmates
working all day so they're tired at night," says Warden Burl Cain, a
committed evangelist who believes that the rehabilitation of convicts is
only possible through Christian redemption.
Undoubtedly there is less violence and abuse among the prisoners under his
wardenship than there was under his predecessors. But Angola is still a
long way from being a "positive environment that promotes responsibility,
goodness, and humanity", as he proclaims in the prison's mission
statement. In fact at the heart of Cain's prison regime is an inhumanity
that would make Jesus weep.
For more than 37 years, two prisoners, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox,
have been locked down in Angola's maximum security Closed Cell Restricted
(CCR) block – the longest period of solitary confinement in American
Having experienced the isolation of "23-hour bang-up" during my own 20
years of imprisonment, for offences of which I was guilty, I can attest to
the mental impact that such conditions inflict. My first year was spent on
a high-security landing where the cell doors were opened only briefly for
meals and emptying of toilet buckets. If decent-minded prison officers
were on duty we were allowed to walk the yard for 30 minutes a day. The
rest of the time we were alone. The cells were 10ft x 5ft, with a chair, a
table and a bed. You could walk up and down, run on the spot, stand still,
or do push-ups and sit-ups – but sooner or later you had to just stop, and
As the days, weeks and months blur into one, without realising it you
start to live completely inside your head. You dream about the past, in
vivid detail – and fantasise about the future, for fantasies are all you
have. You panic but it's no good "getting on the bell" – unless you're
dying – and, even then, don't hope for a speedy response. I had a lot to
think about. When the man in the cell above mine hanged himself I thought
about that, a lot. I still do. You look at the bars on the high window and
think how easy it would be to be free of all the thinking.
Such thoughts must have crossed the minds of Wallace and Woodfox more than
once during their isolation. They are fed through the barred gates of
their 9ft x 6ft cells and allowed only one hour of exercise every other
day alone in a small caged yard. Their capacity for psychological
endurance alone is noteworthy.
Wallace and Woodfox were confined to solitary after being convicted of
murdering Angola prison guard Brent Miller in 1972. But the circumstances
of their trial was so suspect that there are no doubts among their
supporters that these men are innocent. Even Brent Miller's widow, Teenie
Verret, has her reservations. "If they did not do this," she says, "and I
believe that they didn't, they have been living a nightmare."
One man who understands the nightmare that Wallace and Woodfox are living
more than anyone else is Robert King. King was also convicted of a murder
in Angola in 1973, and was held in solitary alongside Wallace and Woodfox
for 29 years, until his conviction was overturned in 2001 and he was
freed. Together, King, Wallace and Woodfox have become known as the
The case of the Angola three first came to international attention
following the campaigning efforts of the Body Shop founder and
humanitarian Anita Roddick. Roddick heard about their plight from a young
lawyer named Scott Fleming. Fleming was working as a prisoner advocate in
the 1990s when he received a letter from Wallace asking for help. The
human tragedy Fleming uncovered had the most profound effect on him. When
he qualified as a lawyer, their case became his first. "I was born in
1973," he says. "I often think that for my entire life they have been in
Through Fleming, Roddick met King and then Woodfox in Angola. Their story,
she said later, "made my blood run cold in my veins". Until her death in
2007 Roddick was a committed and passionate supporter of their cause. At
her memorial service King played two taped messages from Wallace and
Woodfox. In the congregation was film-maker Vadim Jean who had become good
friends with Roddick and her husband Gordon during an earlier film
project. "Anita's big thing was, 'Just do something,'" says Jean. "No
matter how small an act of kindness. Listening to Herman and Albert's
voices at her memorial was like having Anita's finger pointing at me and
saying, 'Just do something'." And so he decided to make In the Land of the
Free, a searing documentary, released later this month.
The story Jean's film tells is one that has resonance on many levels. All
three men were from poor black neighbourhoods In New Orleans. They grew up
fearing the police, who would regularly "clear the books" of crimes in the
area, according to King, by pinning then on disaffected young black men.
"If I saw the police, I used to run," King says. He admits to being
involved in petty crime in his early years, but "nothing vicious".
Eventually King was arrested for an armed robbery he says he did not
commit and was sentenced to 35 years, which he began in New Orleans parish
prison – and there he met Albert Woodfox.
Woodfox had also been sentenced for armed robbery – and given 50 years. On
the day he was sentenced he escaped from the courthouse. He made his way
to Harlem in New York, where he encountered the Black Panthers, the
revolutionary African-American political movement. He witnessed the
Panthers engaging with the community in a positive, constructive way,
educating and informing people of their rights. He says it was the first
time in his life that he had seen African-Americans exhibiting real pride,
pride that emanated from the young activists, he says, "like a shimmering
Two days later Woodfox was caught and taken to New York's Tombs prison
where he saw first-hand the militant tactics of imprisoned Panthers who
resisted their guards with organised protests. In Tombs, Woodfox was
labelled "militant" and sent back to New Orleans where he joined King on
the parish prison block, known – due to the high concentration of Panther
activists – as "the Panther tier". There Woodfox became a member of the
Black Panther party.
Outside, confrontations between the Panthers – described by FBI director J
Edgar Hoover as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the
country" – and the police were escalating. In an attempt to undermine the
influence of the Panthers in New Orleans parish prison, officials tried to
shoehorn men they termed "Black Gangsters" on to the tier – men like
Wallace, also serving decades for armed robbery. One day Wallace was
suffering from the pain of ill-fitting shoes. One of the Panthers, on his
way to a court appearance, took his shoes off and handed them to Wallace.
"Right then I knew that that was what I needed to be a part of," he says.
In the summer of 1971 Wallace and Woodfox were shipped to Angola.
The civil rights bill had been signed in 1964, but seven years later
Angola was still operating a segregated regime. Prisoner guards carried
guns and were also responsible, according to well-documented sources, for
organising systematic sexual abuse of vulnerable prisoners, which
flourished in the prison's mostly dormitory accommodation. And violence
between prisoners had reached such levels that Angola was known as "the
bloodiest prison in America".
Woodfox and Wallace quickly extended the New Orleans chapter of the Black
Panthers into Angola, establishing classes in political ideology and
exposing injustices. They organised work stoppages, demonstrating to
fellow prisoners the liberating power of acting with a "unity of purpose"
and worked to eradicate the prevalent sexual abuses. But their political
activities made them targets for the administrators. By the spring of
1972, tensions in the prison were dangerously high.
These were the conditions in which Brent Miller met his untimely death.
That April, a prisoner work strike drew the attention of the guards who
were called from normal duties to deal with the disturbance. Miller, a
strong, athletic young man of 23, stayed behind alone. He entered a
dormitory holding 90 prisoners and sat on an elderly prisoner's bed,
drinking coffee and chatting. Moments later he was attacked and stabbed 32
Two days later, four men identified as "black militants", including
Wallace and Woodfox, were accused of the murder. It was quickly
ascertained that one of the four had been inserted into the case by the
prison administration. Charges against him were dropped. Another, Chester
Jackson, admitted to holding Miller while the guard was stabbed to death.
Jackson turned state's evidence in return for a plea to manslaughter. The
case was tried in a town called St Francisville, the closest courthouse to
Angola. The jury had been picked from the local populace, many of whom
earned their living from the prison or had families and friends that
worked there; all were white. Wallace and Woodfox were found guilty of
Miller's murder, sentenced to life imprisonment without parole and taken
from the court straight to Angola's CCR block to begin their life in
Robert King was brought to Angola from the parish prison two weeks after
Miller's killing, as part of a roundup of black radicals. King had never
met Miller and was in a prison 150 miles away when the murder took place.
Yet he was investigated for the crime and identified as a "conspirator"
before being transferred to lockdown on CCR alongside Wallace and
The following year a prisoner named August Kelly was murdered on King's
CCR tier. A man named Grady Brewer admitted that he alone was responsible
for the killing, which he said he carried out in self-defence. But King
was also charged. The two men faced trial together in the same St
Francisville courthouse where Wallace and Woodfox had been convicted the
year before. The sole evidence against King came from flawed prisoner
testimony. He and Brewer had not been allowed to speak to their attorneys
for any length of time before their trial. When they protested, the judge
ordered their hands to be shackled behind their backs and their mouths
gagged with duct tape for the duration of their trial. The men were
convicted and sentenced to life without parole. King later won an appeal;
the federal court ruled that he had not been sufficiently unruly in the
dock to warrant the shackling and gagging. He went back to trial in 1975,
was re-convicted and immediately sent back to CCR.
When, after Scott Fleming's intervention in the case of Wallace and
Woodfox in the 1990s, new lawyers reviewed the original trial of both men,
discovering "obfuscation after obfuscation". The state had used a number
of jailhouse informants against them, many of whom gave contradictory
accounts of what they saw. One was registered blind. The key witness in
the case was a man called Hezikiah Brown who testified he witnessed the
murder. In his initial statement to investigators however, Brown said he
had not seen anything. Three days later, when he was taken from his bunk
at midnight by prison officials and promised his freedom if he testified,
he agreed to say that he saw Wallace and Woodfox kill Miller. At the time
Brown was serving life without parole for multiple rapes. Immediately
after he agreed to testify he was given his own minimum security private
house in the prison grounds and a weekly cigarette ration.
Wallace and Woodfox did not give up. They fought their convictions from
their cells and in 1993 Woodfox was granted an appeal, forcing a new
trial. The case was sent back to the same courthouse to be tried in front
of a new grand jury. A local author, Anne Butler, who had published a book
in which she detailed the case and was convinced that the right people had
been convicted, acted as jury chairperson. No witnesses were called.
Instead Butler was called upon to explain the case. Once again, the jury
was composed of people who worked in Angola or were related to people who
worked there. Butler's husband and co-author was Murray Henderson, who had
been the warden of Angola when Brent Miller was murdered. It is worth
noting that Henderson was a key member of the original investigation team
and that, during that investigation, a bloody fingerprint was found close
to Brent Miller's body. It was determined that it did not belong to
Woodfox nor to Wallace, but despite the prison holding all the
fingerprints of all the prisoners, no attempt was made to find out whose
it was. The bloody print was also ignored at Woodfox's retrial. He was
reconvicted and sent back to isolation in Angola's CCR.
It was 26 years before King won the right to another appeal. In 2001 the
Federal court found that the jury in King's original trial had
systematically excluded African-Americans and women and agreed that the
case should be reheard. This time around the prisoner witnesses recanted
and the federal court sent the case back to the district court for review.
The state negotiated a deal with King. Reluctantly, and with his left hand
raised instead of his right, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy; an hour and
a half later he was freed.
In September 2008, Woodfox's conviction was overturned; the federal court
ruled that his core constitutional rights had been violated at his
original trial. Louisiana attorney general Buddy Caldwell could have set
Woodfox free immediately. Instead he decided to contest the federal
decision and Woodfox, now 64, was returned to Angola's CCR, where he
remains. Herman Wallace, now 68, was moved to another Louisiana prison
last year, where he too continues to be held in solitary confinement.
Today King, now 67, is still campaigning for justice for his friends.
Albert Woodfox: "Our primary objective is that front gate. That is what we
are struggling for and we are actually fighting for our freedom. We are
fighting for people to understand that we were framed for a murder that we
are totally, completely and actually innocent of." Robert King says he is
free of Angola, but until his friends are free, "Angola will never be free
Jean hopes his film will make a difference. "These men need help," he
says. "Louisiana needs to be shamed into doing the right thing."
Further information: angola3(dot)org. If you wish to help highlight the
plight of the Angola 3, you can write to the Governor of Louisiana at the
Office of the Governor, PO Box 94004, Baton Rouge, LA 70804, US.
In the Land of the Free is released on 26 March