I'm not one particularly given to believing in conspiracy theories, but I heard a story the other day that I cannot believe hasn't been on the front page of every American newspaper. It's the story of three African American men who helped form a chapter of the human-rights group the Black Panthers in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola in the early 1970s. Apparently threatened by the political statement these men had made, the racist and corrupt all-white prison establishment proceeded to frame them for murders they did not commit, and throw them in solitary confinement for almost 30 years.
Two of those men, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, are still in solitary at Angola. The third of the so-called "Angola Three," Robert King Wilkerson, was freed from prison last year after 29 years in solitary for a crime he not only didn't commit, but to which another man had confessed and was convicted years before.
All three men -- Woodfox, Wallace, and Wilkerson -- arrived at Angola in the early 1970s after separate robbery convictions. Angola at that time was known as the most brutal, violent, and racially segregated prison in America. Almost a prisoner a day was stabbed shot or raped. Prisoners were often given jobs as "inmate guards," armed with state-issued rifles and charged with patrolling the sprawling, anarchic prison grounds. Sexual slavery among the inmates was intentionally overlooked by the warden. Prisoners performed forced labor, and were often put in inhumane extreme punishment camps for small infractions.
The three men, along with a dozen or more other black inmates, had had enough, and founded a chapter of the Black Panthers inside Angola to fight the injustices. To quash the activists, the administration appears to have resorted to framing the men for murder.
In 1972 Brent Miller, a white guard, was found stabbed to death inside the prison. Without a thorough investigation, the prison administration decided it was Woodfox and Wallace who had committed the crime. Evidence shows that prison officials persuaded several inmate snitches to testify against the men in exchange for sentence reductions or, in one case, a gubernatorial pardon and a carton of cigarettes a week for good measure.
Despite a complete lack of physical evidence connecting the men to the murder, they were tried before all-white juries and convicted, sentenced to life without parole. Woodfox and Wallace were placed immediately in "non-punitive" solitary confinement where they have remained ever since, with minimal access to other prisoners or to basic privileges accorded other prisoners. They spend 23 hours a day locked in small, un-air-conditioned cells.
Wilkerson, who was known to prison officials as a Black Panther and prison activist, arrived at Angola a few days after Miller's death, but was placed directly in solitary confinement upon his arrival and was told he was under investigation for the guard's murder. When that charge didn't stick, Wilkerson and another man were charged with the stabbing death of a fellow inmate, August Kelly. While Wilkerson stood trial, his mouth was duct-taped shut. His co-defendant testified at the trial that he alone had stabbed Kelly in self-defense, yet both men were convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Later, both inmates who had testified against Wilkerson admitted that they had lied on the stand, and one admitted that the warden had instructed him on what to say under oath. Even Wilkerson's co-defendant repeatedly affirmed that he alone had killed Kelly and that Wilkerson had nothing to do with Kelly's death. Still, it took 29 years for Wilkerson to finally be freed. And he hasn't received so much as an apology from the prison or the state of Louisiana.
Woodfox and Wallace remain in solitary confinement. While legal volunteers continue to work on appeals, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit claiming that the prison's insistence on keeping the men in solitary amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In 2000, the men participated in a hunger strike to protest prison conditions, and were punished for the better part of a year in "Camp J," an extreme punishment unit where the conditions are even more dire and restrictive than solitary.
Every time I tell this story, people say it sounds like something you'd see on a news magazine show, like 60 Minutes. Yet according to Scott Fleming, a young attorney in California who is volunteering his talents to the effort to free Woodfox and Wallace and who brought their story to my attention, no major media outlet has shown any interest at all. I
hereby challenge the media: tell the story of the Angola Three. The truth might just set them free.
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