UPDATE: On July 8, a federal judge in Louisiana overturned Albert Woodfox’s 1972 conviction. If the state does not request a retrial, he could be freed in the coming weeks. It is unclear whether the court’s ruling will influence the progress of Herman Wallace’s appeals.
After 35 years, 11 months, and one week, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace walked out of solitary confinement for the first time at Louisiana State Penitentiary on March 24, 2008. Originally imprisoned on robbery charges, they were convicted in 1972 of the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. Wallace and Woodfox say they were framed and made an example of by a prison administration that resented their attempts to reform the prison through nonviolent protest. They had, after all, gone so far as to found a chapter of the Black Panthers at Angola, the first and only one inside a prison.
With Robert King Wilkerson, a fellow Panther who was convicted the next year of the murder of a fellow inmate, the men became known as the Angola 3. King established his innocence in 2001 and walked free after 29 years in solitary.
Woodfox and Wallace have the distinction of serving a longer stretch in solitary confinement than any other inmates in the nation’s history. They spent every day in cells averaging six feet by nine feet, for 23 hours, spending one hour either showering, running in tight circles on a small, concrete yard surrounded on four sides and above by chain-link and razor wire, or walking up and down along the tier. A bare lightbulb burned 24 hours a day above them in their cells, and television sets bolted to the walls opposite their cells blared constantly. The only climate control was a massive fan at the end of the tier, which did little to alleviate the sultry Louisiana summer days and nothing to warm the cold winter nights. For the first 17 years of their sentence, they were not permitted visitors, and then only a closely monitored, preapproved group of friends and family who were generally only permitted to talk to the men through a metal screen.
To communicate, they shouted to one another; the wardens intentionally kept Woodfox and Wallace on different tiers so they could not see or hear one another unless one was on the yard, where he could shout into the other’s barred window.
In 2004, Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, who specializes in the mental effects on extended solitary confinement, evaluated all three men on behalf of their attorneys. Grassian’s research details the psychological toll of such confinement, including psychotic breaks, decompensation, and suicidality. Woodfox, Wallace, and King, he noted, had survived with remarkable stoicism, albeit probably damaged for life. Robert King recalled that in the 1980s, when his sister reached to hug him for the first time in almost two decades, he realized he had forgotten how.
The ACLU filed a civil suit on behalf of the men in the Louisiana courts in 2000, contending that the conditions of their captivity amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and that they had been systematically denied access to due process in order to earn their way back into the general prison population.
NBC Nightly News got ahold of the story and aired a piece entitled “Cruel & Unusual?” about the men on March 16. A few days after the newscast, Rep. John Conyers visited the men, and in his capacity as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, publicly called for an investigation into Wallace and Woodfox’s convictions. Brent Miller’s widow, Leontine Verrett, told NBC that she would like to see her husband’s real killer or killers identified.
Just a week after NBC aired its segment, Woodfox and Wallace were released from solitary into a new “maximum security dormitory” along with 17 other inmates who had shared the solitary wing on Angola’s former death row. (A new death row opened in 2007.) Angola spokeswoman Angie Norwood said the transfer had nothing to do with the media attention, and that the men had been held in solitary all these years for their own protection.
The transition for both has been both thrilling and difficult to adapt to, they say. And they insist the move is not significant in the grand scheme until they win their cases and prove their innocence, and walk out the front gate of Angola into the blissfully stifling bayou air.
The three men have been advised by their lawyers not to discuss their legal cases, in an effort to keep their strategy from the prying eyes of an increasingly agitated attorney general’s office. But I spoke by telephone with Woodfox and Wallace on the 36th anniversary of Miller’s murder, to check in on their adjustment to new surroundings.
Counterintuitively, it turns out the men aren’t getting enough time alone.
Mother Jones: What is life in the new dormitory like? What is a typical day like for you?
Herman Wallace: Let me put it to you like this, without saying what it’s like for me. I’ve watched these men when we were in the cells, and some of them would take and be throwing feces on one another. They were angry. They were out of touch with themselves. Once these men come over here, to this dormitory, I could see the change in these guys. I see the humanity coming back into them. Every goddamned day I can see this here.
[A recorded voice chimes in: “This call originates from a Louisiana Correctional Facility and may be recorded or monitored.”]
May be recorded? It is being recorded.
You have one guy in here who’s been down [at Angola] the longest of everyone. He’s been down since 1961. He come here with six years and he wound up with three life sentences. He recognizes this is a very dangerous place. I’ve often spoke about this guy. Give this man a chance. Give him hope. Get him out of these cells and let him prove himself. And you know what? This guy here is amazing everybody.
That’s some of the things I’m happy about. It’s giving these guys a chance to get out of themselves. And you know, I appreciate that. For them.
MJ: But what’s it like for you?
HW: What’s it like for me. [Laughs.] That much I don’t talk about. When you go to talk about how it affects me and what I think about it, that’s a whole different ball game.
MJ: Do you get to go outside and exercise?
HW: Outside? Well you know, I’ve went outside about two, three times since I’ve been over here, but it’s not the outside that really gets me, because I’ve got so much work to do. I’m not able to get as much done as I would normally have gotten, because there’s so much distraction. These men constantly come to both Albert and I for advice on certain things. They know about this dormitory, they know that it’s due to the things that we are doing, and they don’t want to do anything to disrupt that. So they are on their best behavior.
When you look at it from that perspective, we understand. But come on. [Groans.] I’ve got to go into the shower, behind the wall, to sit down and write so I wouldn’t get disturbed. They’re looking for me, and I’m behind the shower.
I believe that they were holding a lot of these guys in these cells because they didn’t have other places in order, anywhere else to put them. These guys are not bad. But you put them in a situation where they can’t maneuver, then yeah, they’re going to respond in the manner that you treat them.
But this is not Albert nor my objective. Our objective is that front gate. We’re working our way towards that front gate, gradually.
MJ: Are you feeling optimistic about your case?
HW: I’ve always been optimistic, you know?
But listen here: A lot of things we’re sworn to secrecy on, kind of a gag order—it’s not something I’m very comfortable with, but by the same token, we have a force out there who are trying to make things happen, and it wouldn’t be all that healthy for either of us to spill the beans on what is in the making and what is about to happen. What you’re doing is giving our adversaries the opportunity to counteract what we are doing, particularly because the telephones are monitored.
I think they’ve been holding us to let other guys know, “Look, if you are involved with anything that is remotely close to what these guys are involved with, your ass is gonna be locked up forever in the same way.”
You have wardens who swore they would never take us out of these cells.
I could care less than a shit if they want to settle or not. Personally, I’m ready to go to trial. There are certain things that need to be done because our objective is change, not only for Albert and I, but for the rest of the men. Our suit doesn’t cover the other 15 men in this dormitory; the state is going to have to deal with that on their own, in order to cover their ass so these men don’t follow suit in the manner that we did. I can talk about that, I can say that, can’t nobody shut me up on anything like that.
When they call me “militant” it’s because of my defiance, the things that I am pursuing. I’m pursuing my freedom, alright? And they look at that as a “militant” act.
MJ: So you’re busy? Working hard?
HW: I’m working so hard, you wouldn’t believe. Because you have all of these guys who see what’s going on around us and they know we are for real. They come to us for advice about their own cases. So that’s what I was saying about ducking around because I need to handle the case for Albert, and I need to handle the case for myself, and vice versa with Albert for me. We have to keep our focus. We can’t get sidetracked with all these different other cases. We’re at a critical phase and that’s so important.
There are programs that I’m already undertaking that I want to reach back into this prison [after I’m out], and prisons beyond Angola to help these guys.
Mother Jones: How does it feel to be out of solitary?
Albert Woodfox: It’s still a period of adjustment for me. A lot of distractions. I haven’t been able to figure out what my new routine is going to be yet, but you know, slowly…
I’m just giving myself some time to develop a routine that’s more conducive to being in a dorm rather than a cell.
MJ: Your attorney tells me you did something like 600 sit-ups in a row? Is that part of your new routine?
AW: [Laughs.] Well, that’s not at once. That’s throughout the day.
MJ: Are you having the same problem as Herman, not getting a lot of time to yourself?
AW: Yes, well, we’ve somewhat become the village elders. All of the problems, big and small, seem to come to us here. On the one hand its an honor that the other prisoners in the dorm have enough respect for us that they think we can help them out, but on the other hand it can be distracting at times.
MJ: So are you ever just by yourself?
AW: Yeah, yeah, Herman and I, every once in a while we get off by ourself and just talk about things—personal issues, social issues, or political issues. We try to stay connected to what’s happening in society and in the world, as well as discussing our case and what our next move will be.
MJ: Is it different just getting to talk to Herman face-to-face after all these years?
AW: Oh yeah, we have and will continue to talk about things we’ve been denied the right to talk about for thirty-some years. Especially the loss of family ones, how it affected us individually and as friends. It’s far different from shouting out a window to someone and getting to sit right across from them, you know?
MJ: How are the guards being with you in your new accommodation?
AW: Well you know, the guards run the spectrum of professional to asshole. And we’ve had a little bit of both.
We’re trying to take one day at a time, not become flustered or frustrated about some of the things that happen. You know, its going to take the dorm awhile to evolve its own culture. I think the administration is probably surprised that there’s been no major incident in the dorm and that everybody seems to be making the extra effort to live in peace and unity. I think that’s a tribute to the determination of the people in the dorm right now to make it a success.
MJ: Do you have more privileges in the dorm than in solitary, more books and newspapers?
AW: Nah, the only thing we have more access to is more space. We have access to the same newspapers we had, the library comes around once or twice a week, the TVs go off at twelve except on Fridays and Saturdays, so that’s somewhat new. They used to be on 24/7 in the cells, so to me that’s a welcome change.
MJ: So you can experience actual quiet?
AW: Yeah, there are times at night I may wake up at two or three in the morning and I may get up and come sit in the day room and just reflect on where my life is now as to compared to where it was, and where I want it to go.
MJ: Are you feeling hopeful?
AW: Well yeah. Right now the awareness of the cause of the Angola 3 is probably at its highest point. With awareness comes more support; a lot of very important people in the federal and state government have taken an interest in what’s going on here in Angola, and hopefully that will help us obtain our main goal, which is our freedom, and to affect some kind of change in the prison system as well.
MJ: So you’re hoping what happens in your case serves to help those who might be left behind in Angola when you are free?
AW: Well yeah, it’s already helped them. There’s a dorm now. At one time CCR (closed-cell restricted—the terminology for solitary at Angola) was a dead end. If you were lucky enough to get out of CCR, you went to the cell block if you were black, and if you were white you usually went to a dormitory environment. So now there’s a dorm so you can leave a cell not just for another cell. And hopefully from here into the main prison population.
MJ: What is the biggest difference for you?
AW: The biggest change for me is being able to walk beyond nine feet at one time. For the last 30-some years I was confined to walking nine feet one way and nine feet back the other way. Really, actually shorter, because the metal sink/toilet combination took up about two feet of that.
We get to go to chow, and I’ve had a visit since [we’ve come over here] without any restraints. It was kind of strange, being in a large area like that with so many other people. A lot of people came over to the table and wanted to shake my hand and thank me for staying strong and not allowing these people to break me or break Herman. It was great on one hand but it was humbling on the other hand. We never thought so many people cared so much about what happened to us. That so many people’s hopes and dreams and courage or whatever was a part of us.
MJ: Do you get to go outside?
AW: Yeah, we have the yard seven days a week. The strange thing about it, when I was in the cell I always had this urgency to go on the yard, because we only had three days a week. But that’s kind of disappeared because I know the yard is available. I just started this week developing a workout routine that’s somewhat more strenuous and longer than in the cells, a writing routine…you know it takes time to adjust to the various [head] counts at various times, walking to the dining hall, eating, walking back. If anything, its a pleasure. Being able to go beyond nine feet can be a great feeling.
MJ: Are you getting to see more of your family?
AW: Well my brother came up, my niece and her children, my nephew by his marriage, but mostly its the people who always visit—that hasn’t changed; we’re limited on how many people we can have on our approved visiting list.
MJ: What do you do with the free time in your day?
AW: Well I always set aside two hours to read. And I’m always engaged in some kind of conversation, usually with Herman, but people are coming up to me with things that range from personal to legal to social to political. As a matter of fact I was playing dominoes when it was time for me to come and talk to you. I don’t watch a lot of TV but when I do it’s usually some kind of news show or Animal Planet or Discovery—something educational.
The thing I noticed most about being with Herman is the laughing, the talking, the bumping up against one another, being able to “check” one another; we’ve been denied this for so long. And every once in a while he’ll put his arm around me or I’ll put my arm around him. It’s those kind of things that make you human. And we’re truly enjoying that.