Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Angola 3 - Their crime was to be black at the wrong time in the US


As a new film charts the story of the Angola 3,
wrongly imprisoned in America’s most notorious
penitentiary for 37 years, the documentary’s
producer and Big Issue co-founder Gordon Roddick
tells of the campaign, started by his late wife Anita, to reverse the injustice

Anita was never the most predictable of people
and this time I thought she had taken leave of
her senses. She came to me five years ago to
enlist my support in the case of the Angola 3.
She insisted I join her in Louisiana to meet
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, who by then
had each accumulated 34 years in solitary
confinement. The third member of the three,
Robert King, had won his liberty some four years earlier.

I was more than a little nervous at the prospect
of meeting the two men and the whole
prison-visiting experience did little to alleviate that.
Visitors have to go through a full body search
and then a sniffer-dog routine, then the wait for
the bus that drops off visitors within the huge
20,000-acre sprawl that is Angola, Louisiana’s
biggest and most forbidding State penitentiary.

Herman and Albert were at that time being held
within a closed cell restriction block, which
houses the solitary cases on two tiers, with
about 13 cells per tier. The cells are no more
than nine by six feet; they are kept in there for
23 hours a day, only getting out for a shower or
exercise in the yard, where again they are alone.
Imagine for a minute being forced to live in your
bathroom for the rest of your life.

They are constantly subjected to harassment of a
petty and mean-minded nature: Herman was put on a
charge and spent three weeks in the dungeon for
having too many postage stamps in his cell. Both
of them have been subjected to torture over a prolonged period of time.

The recommended time to be spent in Camp J, the
punishment dungeon, is no more than three weeks,
as it can send strong men crazy. Herman was once
subjected to two years in Camp J. What kept him
sane was the knowledge of his innocence and a
steady flow of Angola 3 visitors and friends.

Through the cacophony of shouting and the
clanging of the steel doors, I kept thinking –
what kind of men am I on my way to meet? I had
prepared a list of questions and topics for
discussion and sat down in the little room they
have for a non-contact visit. This is a very
small room with six cubicles, prisoners are
separated by a wire mesh through which you are
visible. It is possible to talk without the aid
of a telephone. Herman was brought in first, with
both legs shackled and with hands tied to a waist
belt. They released one hand so he could
gesticulate and later on he was allowed to use
that hand to join us in eating lunch.

My list of topics and questions was forgotten as
we launched into conversation with the ease of
friends. Anita had got to know both of them very
well, through many visits and long monthly
letters. The visit of four hours seemed to fly
past very quickly. What struck me most was their
quiet, perceptive intelligence and their concern
with what was happening in the outside world.

Herman and Albert are very well read, there is no
subject in terms of current affairs or legal
issues in which they are not well versed. They
have created a life for themselves that makes the
most of their appalling situation.

Herman and Albert were adamant that while this
was about the serial injustice they had suffered,
it was, more importantly, about the thousands of
black men and women still locked up following the
wholesale racist climate of the late ‘60s and
early ‘70s. It is their determination to lead
this fight when they get out. They are outraged
by the flagrant disregard for the American
constitution, that says all citizens are entitled
to be tried by a jury of their peers. On these
grounds alone, there should be at least a
judicial review of all those unsafe convictions.

The visit was peppered with laughter and good
humour and I left Angola feeling uplifted by the
few hours in their company, but shaken by the
thoughts of what Herman and Albert have to deal
with on a daily basis. I read most of the legal
documents pertaining to their case; the more I
read the more I was convinced of their innocence
and the more I was determined to help Anita in
her quest to set them free. These visits have
since become an important part of my life and I
have formed a deep and lasting friendship with Herman, Albert and Robert.

Congressman John Conyers, chairman of the
Congressional Judiciary Committee, made a visit
to see the two men. He was both moved and
impressed with the positive attitude they
displayed and he came back to Washington DC and
gave a speech in support of them. He resolved not
to rest until they have been set free. Five days
after his visit, Herman and Albert were moved to
a high security dormitory with 14 other prisoners
and for a few months had respite from the
confines of solitary. After about six months they
were transferred back to solitary. The reason
given was “budget cuts”. Their torture continues,
with constant harassment focusing on accusations
of minor infringements of petty rules.

We suspect there is a move to provoke them as our
legal efforts are showing success. We must keep
the spotlight on their cases. The best way of
helping is by writing to them offering moral
support. Also, write to the Attorney General,
Buddy Caldwell, expressing disgust at their
inhuman treatment, and to Louisiana Governor
Bobby Jindal. In the meantime, we await verdicts
from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and
Herman’s case has moved to the federal courts with a new habeas corpus writ.

A documentary about the Angola 3, narrated by
Samuel L Jackson, In The Land Of The Free…
premieres at Human Rights Watch Film Festival, March 24, in New York.

It goes on UK release from March 26.

For more information:

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