Fighting Hell in Angola: Prison Activism Yesterday and Today

Jordan Flaherty Jun 6, 2008

At the heart of Louisiana’s prison system sits the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, a former slave plantation where by some accounts little has changed in the last several hundred years. Its vast fields and hills often surprise visitors with their 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 produces staples like soybeans, wheat and the traditional Southern crops of cotton and sugarcane.

Angola has been made notorious by such books and films as Dead Man Walking and The Farm: Life at Angola, as well as its long-running biannual prison rodeo, and The Angolite, a prisoner-written magazine published within its walls.

Most recently, congressional and media attention has focused on the prison’s system of keeping certain inmates in solitary confinement for decades, especially two of Angola’s best-known residents — Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. Woodfox, Wallace and the now-released Robert King Wilkerson are the Angola 3, prison activists interned in solitary as punishment for their political activities.

A Modern Plantation

Norris Henderson, co-director of Safe Streets Strong Communities, a grassroots criminal justice organization in New Orleans, spent 20 years in 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 ’70s. 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 did hundreds of years ago, 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 30 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.”

Prison Organizing

In 1971, the Black Panther Party was seen as a threat to this country’s power structure, both in the inner cities, and even in the prisons. At Orleans Parish Prison, the New Orleans city jail, the entire jail population refused to cooperate 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.’ 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. From their first day inside, they were organizing among the other prisoners, conducting political education sessions and mobilizing for civil disobedience to improve conditions.

“They were part of the Panther movement,” said Henderson, who, like many prisoners during that time, 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 King, 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.

“This was at the height of the Black Power movement; we were understanding that we all got each other. In the nighttime there would be open talk, guys in the jail talking, giving history lessons, discussing why we find ourselves in the situation we find ourselves,” said Henderson. “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 were hustlers that then were listening and learning. Everybody was coming into consciousness.”

In March 1972, not long after they began organizing for reform from within Angola, Wallace and Woodfox were accused of killing a guard and eventually convicted by allwhite juries. The men have maintained their innocence and have mountains of evidence 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. Even the widow of the slain guard has spoken out on their behalf. Most recently, their case has received attention from U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI), head of the House Judiciary Committee, and Cedric Richmond, judiciary chairman in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

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. Wilkerson would eventually be sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a fellow prisoner, despite scant evidence and after his first conviction was thrown out due to the judge’s decision to allow his mouth to be ducttaped during the proceedings.

Wilkerson remained in solitary for nearly 29 years, until a ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted him the right to a new trial. Instead of trying him, however, the prosecutors offered him a plea deal, and he was 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.”

Solidarity Behind Bars

Twenty five percent of the world’s prison population is imprisoned in this country. More than 7 million people are in U.S. jails, on probation, or on parole, and African Americans are incarcerated at nearly ten times the rate of whites. The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, and Louisiana has the largest in the United States. If Louisiana were a country, it would have by far the world’s largest percentage of its population incarcerated, at well over 1 out of every 100 people in the state in prison.

The efforts of the Angola 3 and other politically conscious prisoners represented a fundamental challenge to this system. The organizing of Wallace, Woodfox and Wilkerson, though cut short by their forced move to solitary, has had an effect that continues to this day.

Prison activism, and support for activists behind bars, can be tremendously powerful, says Henderson. “In the early ’70s 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. … But we educated ourselves. Eventually, you had guys in prison proposing legislation.”

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 were moved into a maximum-security dorm in March 2008. Legal experts have said their confinement is the longest time anyone in the United States has spent in solitary.

But the abuse does not end with them. “There are hundreds more guys who have been in (solitary) a long time too,” Henderson said. “This is like the first step in a thousand-mile journey.”

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