"Given the natural limits on the length of human life, especially one in prison, it is difficult to imagine a more atypical or extraordinary confinement than that presented in this case."
Magistrate Judge Docia Dalby
When one hears about prisoners mistreated by guards and a corrupt administration, leading to long periods of being locked down and solitary confinement, one usually thinks of movies. When those people are in that confinement on trumped up charges for almost 30 years, not only does film seem again appropriate, but one set in some foreign land where justice and human rights are not an issue. But this story is not. This didn't happen in Latin America or Turkey or in the concrete cells of some repressive dictatorial regime. It happened here. In the United States.
And it's still going on.
Established in 1901 on lands that were, appropriately, former slave plantations, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (named for the locations where many of the former slaves originated) is one of the biggest prisons in the US.
Usually referred to as Angola or "The Farm," the prison is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and the fourth by heavily wooded hills. There is one road in and the same one out. The nearest town is over twenty miles awayin fact the personnel at the prison mostly live on the penitentiary's 18,000 acres. The community has a population of around 750 people with 250 homes, a grocery, and recreation facilities. There is also a museum there, celebrating the prison's history
The prison houses over 5,100 inmates, of whom over 75% are black (about one-third of Louisiana's population is black). Over half are "lifers" and an additional third are in for 20 or more years (given the life expectancy in prison, essentially making them lifers). It is where Louisiana houses its death row and execution chamber (lethal injection, formerly the electric chair) and where close to 2% of the population await its use. Previous inmates include Huddie Ledbettter (Leadbelly), and Robert Willie, known for the 1996 movie Dead Man Walking, based on the book Dead Man walking: an eyewitness account of the death penalty in America by Sister Helen Prejean (1993).
Angola is referred to as "The Farm" because on those 18,000 acres is extensive agriculture (making the prison partially self-sustaining). Prisoners are basically chain gangs working all day in the fields cutting sugar cane, picking cotton, and harvesting other crops. It should be no surprise the sort of resonance that sort of system would have for black inmates working under their almost all-white overseers. Particularly in years past when infractions could get one spread-eagled in the fields and beaten with leather strips before returning to work. For good measure, they would be beaten again when they returned to their cells.
About 85% of the inmates at Angola will never walk out.
By the early 1970s, Angola had become known as one of the most brutal institutions in the country. Both in terms of inmate treatment and violence within the prison populationboth of which were exacerbated by the prison administration favoring certain prisoners and giving them privilege and responsibility as quasi-guards. Up to and including arming them. They reportedly used the butts of the rifles on their fellow prisoners, sometimes to settle scores, sometimes to carry out the wishes of the administration. This, of course, made conditions worse, creating an additional atmosphere of resentment (outrage) and mistrust not only between officials and inmates but among the inmates, themselves.
In one incident, five men were locked into an isolation cell without food or water. There was no air conditioning in Angola and it was summer in Louisiana. One died as a result. There are rumors of dozens of bodies buried in the nearby swampland.
There were some that tried working to change, or at least ease the tension and the very real danger that people were subject to. This brought problems from the point of view of the prison officialsthe ones working to improve treatment and conditions? Members of the Black Panther Party.
Granted that it was a time usually referred to as the "turbulent" 60s (which, in reality, was the mid-to late 60s and early 70s) and there certainly were some members of the BPP advocating, if not occasionally practicing, violence and active revolutionbut it usually is forgotten or ignored that many Panthers were social activists looking to advance civil rights. They worked to get young blacks into college and helped to get them jobs. They ran soup kitchens and worked to improve conditions within their communities. They kept on eye on police who were suspected of corruption, violence, or civil rights abuses. Something the "establishment" didn't seem to care about doing. As is common, it is the more extreme elements of the organization that were noticed and promoted as the "example" of what the BPP "really" was. They were also easy to scapegoat.
Members of the party tried to organize the inmates and unify the prison population. They worked on relations between black and white prisonersan important step in improving conditions because the guards and (all-white) administration would exploit existing racism or general animosity among the prisoners to keep them divided and fighting amongst themselves. This served to intensify and even create racism in the population and gave the guards more excuses to crackdown on prisoners. At the time all the inmates were still racially segregated.
The Panthers also worked hard to band together and protect younger or weaker inmates from prison rape and actual prostitution (involving both money and favors)something the guards reportedly condoned and allowed (some prisoners charged that some took part in it). There were also instances of guards taking food meant for the inmates and bringing it home to their own families or selling it. Organizers also worked to expose the corruption in the administration and staff. large number of those working as guards and in the administration were part of the community and had "roots" in Angola going back a couple generations.
Into this walked Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox in 1971.
Wallace and Woodfox
Wallace and Woodfox are not heroes. They were in prison for a reason. They had both arrived at Angola with long sentences for armed robbery (unrelated; they did not know each other prior to incarceration). Wallace had also escaped at least twice from the Orleans Parish Prison. Woodfox escaped from the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court after being slipped a gun. He handcuffed a group of people in an elevator and made his way to New York before being apprehended.
Wallace had become a member of the BPP while in prison and Woodfox had done the sameeven having organized rebellions while in New York (where he was imprisoned under an assumed name). When they came to Angola, they continued organizingthough they were not in the same part of the prison. Prison officials did not like the Panthers and dealt with that problem by throwing any that showed signs of activism in isolation cells. As the associate warden testified in court, they needed to keep "a certain type of militant or revolutionary inmate, maybe even a Communist type" under lockdown.
April 1972. tensions at the prison were especially high. On the sixteenth, a guard shack was firebombed and the guard was burned. The next morning, kitchen workers had a "buck" (work stoppage) in order to protest the 16 hour shifts they were forced to work. People who had shown up for breakfast were returned to their dormitories until the conflict was resolved. It soon was and they were ordered back. In one of the dormitories, there were a few inmates and a guardBrent Miller, 23 years old and just married. While the rest were eating breakfast, Miller was stabbed 32 times with homemade knives.
There was a massive crackdown in the wake of the killing. Interrogations were around the clock, reported beatings, and severe restrictions. Men with afros had them shaved off (as they reflected, in most cases, a political statement). This went on for two days without any evidence of who had killed the guard. At least 30 inmates were placed in isolation, Wallace and Woodfox among them.
The prison finally managed to find a "witness," one Hezekiah Brown. On his testimony, charges were brought against Wallace and Woodfox and two other prisoners, Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montegut. They were indicted by a grand jury on 2 May. Woodfox was tried solo and convicted by an all-white jury. Wallace and Montegut were tried together. Two days into the trial, the fourth indictee, Jackson, appeared in the courtroom with the prosecution. He was going to testify against them. The defense attorney for the men was given a half hour before having to cross-examine his own client. Jackson, in return for his cooperation, was allowed to plead to manslaughter.
Wallace was convicted and Montegut acquitted due to another guard as an alibi witness (two of the wardens claim that Montegut was falsely accused in order to discredit a third warden).
Wallace and Woodfox were then put in isolation cells, known as CCR (Closed Cell Restriction). Also known as solitary. While not the "hole" of popular films, there are kept in an un-airconditioned 6 x 9 cell for 23 hours out of the day. In an attempt to put a better spin on the situation, officials at the prison refuse to call it "solitary," noting that the prisoners can smoke, read library books, and watch television (from their cell). They are also not isolated in the dormitories, only in their cell.
In a classic moment of 'so what?' the current warden adds that "they use this term [solitary] all the time and get public sympathy. The next thing they're going to say is bread and water. They're eating good. They get fried chicken once or twice a week. They get pork chops once or twice a week, and they get dessert on their plate" (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 2 May 2002).
In 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, calling it a violation of the eighth amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual" punishment. At the time, they were going on 28 years of CCR. Fried chicken and all.
In 1972, another member of the BPP came to Angola. He had also been convicted of armed robbery and escaping (and was also unknown to both Wallace and Woodfox). Unfortunately he arrived shortly after the Miller killing and put on immediate lockdown. While suspicions are that his known prison activism and BPP membership were the real reason, the prison claimed he was "under investigation." It took 19 years before he would be told what he was being investigated for: the Miller killing. Despite it occurring before Wilkerson stepped foot in Angola. Every few months since he arrived and was placed under CCR, his case was reviewed and every time it has come back that he was to remain isolated. And, until the later revelation, the reason given was that he was "under investigation."
Wilkerson would have left Angola years earlier than he did, except the prison found a way to keep him there. On 10 July 1973, a fight between two inmates took place. Both drew knives and one was stabbed to death. At the time of the incident, 11 of the tier's 14 inmates were out of their cells. All eleven were indicted for murder, including Wilkerson. Later, charges were dropped against all but Wilkerson and Grady Brewer (the one who survived the fight).
At trial, Brewer disrupted the proceedings which resulted in both defendants being shackled and having duct tape placed over their mouths (as ordered by the judge). Based almost entirely on the testimony of two other inmates, both were convicted.
His conviction was reversed because of the gagging incident and he was retried in 1975. He was tried near Angola where large numbers of prison personnel, their families, and friends reside. Things seemed to start off well. One state witness refused to testify. Then Brewer took the stand and testified that he had acted alone and in self-defense (a possibility as the dead man had killed at least two other prisoners). It didn't matter, based the testimony of one other inmate, Wilkerson was again convicted: "natural life," meaning no parole, no pardon, no suspension of sentence.
Woodfox and the "evidence"
Unfortunately for the prison administration, the cases fell apart (which only increases the outrage of the continued punishment). The "star" witness, Brown, had originally told investigators that he hadn't seen anything. He was also known to be pliable: as one former warden put it "Hezekiah was one you could put words in his mouth."
Shortly after the investigations were under way, Brown was summoned by the administration (they came to his cell in the middle of the night) and informed him they could place him at the scene of the murder (it took place next to his bed). He was shown the files of several inmates (Wallace and Woodfox, included) and, fearing he would be charged with murder, accused them (he also accused Jackson). It was several days later (after more pressure to perform) that he named Montegut. The two wardens mentioned above have since admitted Montegut was framed by pressuring Brown to name him.
Not only that but Brown was duly compensated for his service to the prison (something prison officials denied). In a letter from one of the wardens to the Secretary of Corrections, it states clearly that:
As discussed with you I would like to have issued to the above named inmate one (1) carton of cigarettes per week. This, I feel, would partially fulfill committments made to him in the past with respect to his testimony in the state's behalf in the Brent Miller murder case.
Additionally, another warden (C. Murray Henderson) wrote at least four letters (1974 and 1975) requesting Brown be given certain consideration. Brown had already (prior to the Miller killing) had his sentence changed from death to a life sentence (he was a convicted rapist). Henderson asked if consideration before the pardon board would be given due to Brown's help with the murder, his need for protection (because of naming fellow inmates), and his age and deteriorating health. Henderson stressed in a later letter that "It is my personal opinion that the State has an obligation to try to help this individual in some way."
Corroboration appeared in a letter from Brown to the Board of Pardons in which he lists "persons interested in appearing in my behalf." Among them, two are correctional officers and two are wardens. One of whom is Henderson. Brown was not released until the late 1980s and died before Woodfox's second trial (to which we return along with more on compensation).
One of the most disturbing bits concerning the "investigation" was that there was a bloody fingerprint found on the door near the body. It was never linked to any of the defendants.
Woodfox: Trial #2
In 1992, a Louisiana court ruled that Woodfox's original conviction should be overturned because his lawyer had not challenged the grand jury. It had been impaneled so that no women or blacks were able to take part. His original sentence was able to expire, so the State re-indicted him for murder. Things weren't much better.
It so happened that one of the members of the grand jury happened to be an Anne Butlerthe wife of warden Henderson (interestingly, in 1999, Henderson was sentenced to 50 years for shooting her). As if that wasn't enough to taint the proceedings, she and Henderson had authored a book (Dying to Tell: Angola, Crime Consequence, Conclusion at Louisiana State Penitentiary 1992) about his time as warden at Angola. The first chapter is titled "Racist Pigs Who Hold Us Captive" and discusses the Miller case, continuing the claim that Wallace and Woodfox are guilty (the book is still available as a special order at Amazon.com).
It gets worse. The District Attorney testified that Butler had used the book to make a presentation to the other jurors and she testified that she had even passed it around to them. The judge ruled not to quash the indictment because "there's nothing wrong with a grand juror having some knowledge of a case, even if they happened to have written a book on it."
He was finally given a retrial date in December 1998. Because of the exposure and "notoriety" of the case, there was a change of venue allowed. Unfortunately for Woodfox, it may have given him less of a chance for a fair trial. It was moved to the small town of Amite. It just so happens that Miller's family lives nearby. The place is also known as an area of Ku Klux Klan activity.
Despite being in hostile territory, the trial began well. One of the inmate witnesses (Leonard Turner) brought to the stand (he was described as a "snitch"as testified by prison guards) claimed he saw nothing that day and had no information pointing to Woodfox's guilt. With the other "witness" dead (Brown), the defense asked for a mistrial. At that point, the prosecution tried to enter into evidence an unsigned, undated statement allegedly made by Turner and written out by a guard.
Even Henderson said he had never heard of the statement. He did testify to going to Turner shortly after the killing and threatening Turner with going to the parole board and making sure that he would "do the rest of your eighty years, flat." Turner had said he didn't know anything but gave the warden Brown's name as a possible source. Despite all this, the statement was allowed to be introduced to the jury.
The fingerprint issue came up and the state tried to avoid the embarrassment (and what should have been shame) by bringing in an expert who said it might have been a palm print instead. If there had been a real investigation, it would have been easily determined and since all inmates had fingerprints on file, the owner of the print would have been foundhad the prison not stopped that line of investigation after it didn't match the people they wanted it to.
Fingerprints, cigarettes, and fascists
The whole "palm print" episode was, itself, questionable. The defense was not informed about the witness until 30 minutes prior to taking the stand. The prosecution claimed that the "theory" had only occurred that long agoa claim that was destroyed, when under cross-examination, the witness stated that the theory had been suggested to the prosecution two years earlier. Again, the defense called for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct. Again it was denied.
Testimony from the late Hezekiah Brown was also introduced. Testimony including the statement that he was not compensated for his actions: "Nobody promised me nothing." In addition to the documented case of receiving the cigarettes, there is the possibility that Brown received monetary compensation as well. Brown had no money when he entered Angola in 1971. Henderson testified to that, as well as to the fact that Brown did not earn any money working at the prison, had no relatives, and no visitors. Yet, inexplicably (or not), he left in 1986 with $931.24. And in a 1974 article from a New Orleans newspaper it was reported that he testified there with a brand new gold watch.
With no credible witnesses and essentially no real evidence, the prosecution attempted to smear Woodfox through his membership in the BPP as a means to establish that this was a racially (and politically) motivated hate crime. Letters by the prisoner (written over a 20 year period) were introduced wherein he had written "AMERIKKKA" and condemned the "racist pigs" and "fascists" running the prison. This was the extent of the State's "evidence."
Woodfox took the stand and remained firm on his story despite bullying and attempted tricks by the prosecution. He made one mistake (which hardly changed what was probably inevitable). He mentioned that he had passed a lie detector test (a fact that is inadmissiblefor very good reasonsin a court of law). This didn't sit well with the jury who thought he might have been deliberately trying to get the information to them.
But it didn't matter. After five hours of deliberation, Woodfox was reconvicted of the murder and given the sentence of natural life. Miller's brother said it was "like an early Christmas present" (Times-Picayune, 2 May 2002).
Wallace and Woodfox
Woodfox returned to Angola in March 1999. That May, 60 inmates staged a peaceful hunger strike to protest conditions and treatment of the prisoners. Wallace, Woodfox, and Wilkerson were singled out as the leaders of the strike. They were taken out of CCR and placed in the prison's notorious Camp J. An extreme version of CCR, Camp J is where the worst "problems" are sent: inmates who have attacked or raped others or seriously violated prison rules.
The prisoners are placed in small, un-airconditioned cells often for 24 hours a day, only getting "out" two or three times a week (weather permitting) to walk around the "yard." The yard is a small, fully enclosed cage, topped with razor wire. Just in case, they remain shackled, hands to waist (even though no one else is allowed in the cage with them). Food is not of the "fried chicken" or "pork chops" variety (some claim the meat is often "spoiled") and all meetings with lawyers or family take place through a thick metal screen. Also no smoking and no TV.
After eight months, they were returned to regular CCR (the ACLU filing suit a month later). In 2000, Wallace appealed his conviction based on the evidence that his original conviction was "manufactured." He and Woodfox both have appeals ongoing. In April 2002, Wallace was once again sent to Camp J for another six months. During a cell search, a small piece of metal (hidden inside a marker) was found, that (according to the prison officials) could be used to open handcuffs.
It appears they will remain where they are.
Today Wilkerson is a free man.
In the intervening years, the state's case continued to crumble. The two inmates who had previously testified against him recanted, one offering a sworn affidavit that the testimony was false and was "given under circumstances of extreme duress." He also testified that his earlier testimony had been prepared for him by a warden and that he was told that if he did not testify against Wilkerson, he would be charged with murder and given the death penalty. The other inmate, in full recognition of his previous perjury, gave an affidavit that stated he was in the shower at the time of the murder and couldn't have seen what had happened.
He was granted a new trial in 1994not because of the testimony and lack of evidence, but because he, too, had been indicted by a grand jury that had excluded women and blacks. A few months later, they reviewed the case and reversed the rulingThe 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." He returned to prison and continued struggling to get his conviction overturned.
In 2000, the Fifth Circuit Court ruled in his favor on the technicality and remanded the case to a lower court where a not guilty verdict would reverse the conviction. This concerned the state and it offered him a plea to accessory after the fact. While he maintained his innocence, this plea would end the ordeal once and for all. And it was a relatively minor offense for which he would be let off for time served. He decided to go ahead and take the plea.
But the state wasn't willing to let him off so easily. On the day of the plea agreement, it insisted that he plead to conspiracy to commit murder. It had been a long 28 years from his first conviction. He took the plea. They got more than their pound of flesh.
He returned to prison, was processed, and left that afternoon.
Wilkerson dedicates his life to social activism and prison reform, giving talks in the US and Europe on the US prison system and helping groups dedicated to the release of Wallace and Woodfox.
"I may be free of Angola, but Angola will never be free of me."
(Sources: www.angola3.org quotes from there unless otherwise noted, the Times-Picayune article available at www.nola.com/news/t-p/frontpage/index.ssf?/newsstory/angola02_2.html opening quote from there, www.infoshop.org/news5/angola.html)