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Sun, 01.24.1971

The Angola Three, a story

*The Angola Three are celebrated on this date in 1971. Three former black prison inmates are Robert Hillary King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace.

They were held for decades in solitary confinement while imprisoned at Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola Prison). Wallace and Woodfox were each sent to Angola Prison in 1971: Wallace was convicted of bank robbery, and Woodfox was convicted of armed robbery. Woodfox was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Woodfox had escaped from the Orleans Parish courthouse during his sentencing hearing and fled to Harlem in New York City. There he was captured and jailed pending extradition to Louisiana.

During this period, he met men for the first time who were members of the Black Panther Party. They taught other inmates to read, led political discussions, and began his education. "For Woodfox, the teachings of the Panthers were revelatory, giving his life a direction and moral meaning he had never previously found." He joined the Black Panther Party and kept his intellectual connection after it dissolved. He began to learn about black history and the justice system.

When he returned to Louisiana, Woodfox was incarcerated at Angola. At Angola, Wallace also became a member of the Black Panthers. He and Woodfox were among activists seeking to improve conditions at the notoriously cruel and violent prison. They helped organize the education of other prisoners and petitions and hunger strikes to protest segregation within the prison and to end widespread rape and violence. They were targeted by the prison administration, who feared the politically active prisoners.

In 1972, 23-year-old prison guard Brent Miller was found dead of multiple stab wounds. Woodfox and Wallace were indicted and convicted of his murder. King had also been convicted of robbery, but he was not assigned to Angola until after Miller's murder. These three men were soon taken out of the general prison population and were held in solitary confinement.

In 1997, Malik Rahim, a community activist in New Orleans and a former Black Panther member, together with young lawyer Scott Fleming, who had worked as a prisoner advocate while a law student, learned that Wallace, King, and Woodfox were still incarcerated in solitary confinement. (Wallace had written to Fleming appealing for help in his case.) The two men initiated an investigation of the case, challenging the conclusions of the original studies at Angola about the murder of guard Miller and raising questions about the conduct of the prisoners' initial trials in 1972.

Robert King was released in 2001, following 29 years in solitary confinement. His first conviction was overturned on appeal, and he pleaded guilty to a lesser conspiracy to commit murder charge. Robert Hillary King was still alive in 2020.

In July 2013, Herman Wallace was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. Amnesty International called for Herman Wallace's release on humanitarian grounds, saying, "Wallace is 71 years old and has advanced liver cancer. On October 1, 2013, Wallace was granted immediate release by U.S. District Chief Judge Brian A. Jackson of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ending Wallace's forty-year incarceration in solitary confinement. The court had overturned Wallace's conviction in the murder of Miller, based on the unconstitutional exclusion of women from his jury, in violation of the 14th Amendment. Wallace was taken to the house of a close friend in New Orleans.  The state appealed the judge's orders, seeking to keep Wallace in prison. On October 3, 2013, a West Feliciana Parish grand jury indicted Wallace again for the 1972 murder of Miller, the corrections officer. Herman Wallace died on October 4, 2013, three days after being released from prison.

Amnesty International called for the release of Albert Woodfox after Wallace's release. He had been in solitary confinement since 1972. After more court challenges, Woodfox was finally released from prison on February 19, 2016, after being imprisoned for 45 years, 43 of them in solitary confinement. At the time, he spoke to a reporter from The New York Times and said, "When I began to understand who I was, I considered myself free." He was referring to learning via the Black Panthers and reading while in prison about his history as an African American and racial inequities in the U.S. After his release, Woodfox wrote a memoir, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope (2019) is about his early life and four decades in prison. Woodfox died from complications of COVID-19 on August 4, 2022, at the age of 75.

Miller's family continued to oppose Woodfox's release. His father had worked in the prison, and his brother was a prison guard at the same time as Brent Miller. Another brother had earlier served as a prison guard. They were not changed in their opinions by the wavering of witnesses and lack of physical evidence in the case. But Miller's widow, Teenie Verret, doubted Wallace and Woodfox's guilt. "If they did not do this," she says, "and I believe that they didn't, they have been living a nightmare."

Burl Cain, the former warden of Angola, repeatedly said in 2008 and 2009 that Woodfox and Wallace had to be held in C.C.R. because they subscribed to "Black Pantheism." State officials continued to oppose the inmates' release strongly. Louisiana's Attorney General, James Caldwell, said in 2013 that he opposed releasing the two men "with every fiber of my being." He said they had never been held in solitary confinement but were in "protective cell units known as C.C.R. [Closed Cell Restricted]."

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