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How Albert Woodfox of ‘The Angola Three’ survived 43 years in solitary confinement

Albert Woodfox. Picture: Peter Puna
Albert Woodfox was released from prison in 2016 after more than four decades. Photograph: Peter Puna/Courtesy Grove Atlantic

The case of The Angola Three made up of Robert King, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, three African-American former prison inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary also known as Angola Prison, makes for interesting observation.

Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were indicted in April 1972 for the killing of a prison corrections officer. They were convicted in January 1974. The pair served more than 40 years each – the “longest period of solitary confinement in American prison history.”

King was convicted of a separate prison murder in 1973 and spent 29 years in solitary confinement before his conviction was overturned on appeal; he was released in 2001 after taking a plea deal. From the late 1990s, each case was assessed, and activists began to work to have the cases appealed and convictions overturned because of doubts raised about the original trials.

It took 71-year-old Herman Wallace being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in July 2013 and Amnesty International calling for his release to gain freedom on October 1, 2013. The state, however, showed bad faith by re-indicting him on October 3, 2013 however he died the following day, before he could be re-arrested.

That leaves us with Woodfox whose conviction was overturned by the US Court of Appeals on November 20, 2014. In April 2015, his lawyer applied for an unconditional writ for his release leading to his freedom on February 19, 2016, after the prosecution agreed to drop its push for a retrial and accept his plea of no contest to lesser charges of burglary and manslaughter.

Woodfox would have liked the chance to prove his innocence, but chose the plea deal because of advanced age and health issues.

What then was the motivation for prison officials to throw the three in solitary confinement?

The Angola Three said they were targeted by prison officials because they spoke out against inhumane treatment and racial segregation at the notorious Louisiana prison built on a former slave plantation. They had opened a chapter of the revolutionary Black Panther Party where they challenged the status quo which deprived African-Americans of rights in the prison.

Their activity of helping inmates become literate and aware of their rights was a source of worry for the prison guards who viewed them as stirring the pot. So when 23-year-old Brent Miller, a white guard at the notorious Angola Prison was found dead in a cell with multiple stab wounds, the three men were convicted of his murder and placed in solitary confinement.

The Angola Three, left to right: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert Hillary King via Wikimedia Commons

Woodfox and Herman Wallace, who were sent to Angola for unrelated cases of armed robbery, were convicted of the Miller murder in 1972.

The trials were deeply flawed reflecting the rife discrimination and corruption in Louisiana’s justice system. A third man, Robert King, was accused of planning the murder from another jail.

Almost immediately after the discovery of Miller’s body, covered with stab wounds, Wallace and Woodfox were placed in small airless isolation cells. Many wanted answers and fast.

Prosecutors failed to produce any physical evidence linking the men to the murder. A bloody print found at the murder scene was used as evidence, even though it did not match those of the men accused of the crime.

Since the original trial, it emerged the main eyewitness was bribed by prison officials to give statements against the men; while the state withheld evidence about the perjured testimony of another inmate. Other witnesses retracted their testimony.

Angola was known for its brutal treatment of detainees with inmates racially segregated and guarded exclusively by white officers. Murder and rape were also endemic.

Curiously, Woodfox had his conviction overturned three times but the state appealed. He was confined to a 2×3 meter cell, 23 hours a day, only allowed out to exercise alone in a small outdoor cage or to walk along the cell unit corridor and shower.

The situation, according to Woodfox’s lawyer, made him suffer from claustrophobia, hypertension, heart disease, chronic renal insufficiency, diabetes, anxiety and insomnia.

His attorney George Kendall noted “Albert survived the extreme and cruel punishment of 40 plus years in solitary confinement only because of his extraordinary strength and character.”

The Black Panther activist, who spent a record 43 years in solitary confinement was freed from a U.S. prison on his 69th birthday.

“Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case now and obtain my release with this no-contest plea to lesser charges,” Woodfox said in a statement upon his freedom.

“On my release, on 19 February 2016, my brother Michael took me home and I lived with him and his wife and son in their house for almost a year. I got medical care that I needed. In my mind, heart, soul, and spirit I always felt free, so my attitudes and thoughts didn’t change much after I was released. But to be in my physical body in the physical world again was like being newly born. I had to learn to use my hands in new ways – for seat belts, for cellphones, to close doors behind me, to push buttons in an elevator, to drive. I had to relearn how to walk down stairs, how to walk without leg irons, how to sit without being shackled,” Woodfox summed up.


Brave New Films: Assata’s Daughters

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Assata’s Daughters is a Black women-led organization formed by Black feminists and organizers in the south side of Chicago as a reaction to the violence in their neighborhoods. Through training and then participating in coalition-based campaigns, Assata’s Daughters provides mentorship for Black youth to learn to address the many social issues that impact their world. Our partners at Brave New Films recently profiled the organization in a new short as part of their #YouthinAction series. Today we’ll play that short film that showcases how Assata’s Daughters fight for change and overcome many obstacles, including the recent fire in their Chicago headquarters.




California set to be first state to protect black people from natural hair discrimination

California set to be first state to protect black people from natural hair discrimination
Kari Williams’ Beverly Hills hair salon specializes in natural black hair. She supports a bill that would protect natural black hairstyles from discrimination. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Kari Williams has worked to make her natural hair salon a refuge for black Angelenos, including those who’ve felt pressured to alter their hairstyles to hold on to a job.

Some customers have asked her to cut their locs — short for dreadlocks — because their bosses deemed them unacceptable. Others hadn’t worn their natural hair in so long they forgot what it looked like. That’s why Williams welcomes proposed state legislation that could soon make California the first state to protect black employees from discrimination based on hairstyles.

“It’s important to me as a black woman,” said Williams, who owns Mahogany Hair Revolution, a hair salon in Beverly Hills. “Our skin color and our hair have been used as ways to continue to keep us disenfranchised.”

The CROWN Act, which passed the state Senate in April, was approved by the state Assembly on Thursday. It would outlaw policies that punish black employees and students for their hairstyles. Supporters say the bill’s acronym reflects its intention: creating a respectful and open workplace for natural hair.


If signed by Gov. Gavin Newsomthe bill would legally protect people in workplaces and K-12 public schools by prohibiting the enforcement of grooming policies that disproportionately affect people of color, particularly black people. This includes bans on certain hairstyles, such as Afros, braids, twists, cornrows and dreadlocks.

The proposal by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), comes after Chastity Jones, a black woman from Alabama, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case in 2018 after she claimed to have lost a job offer because she refused to cut her dreadlocks.

In California, school officials in and around Fresno have sent black students home because of their curls and shaved heads. The Transportation Security Administration also ushered in new measures after facing allegations of “unnecessary, unreasonable and racially discriminatory” hair searches of black women at Los Angeles International Airport.

Nationally, black employees have filed several lawsuitsclaiming to have lost jobsand faced discrimination in the workplace because of their hair.

Kari Williams, left, who is an expert in hair and scalp care, said that common methods of straightening or chemically treating black hair often damage the hair and scalp.
Kari Williams, left, who is an expert in hair and scalp care, said that common methods of straightening or chemically treating black hair often damage the hair and scalp. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The CROWN Act would extend anti-discrimination protections in the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Education Code to include hair texture and styles. It also would amend the California government and education codes to protect against discrimination based on traits historically associated with race, such as hair texture and hairstyles — affirming that targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.

New York City officially banned natural hair discrimination in February, saying that hairstyles are protected under the city’s existing anti-discrimination laws because policing black hair is a form of pervasive racism and bias. Lawmakers in New York and New Jersey also proposed legislation modeled after the CROWN Actin June.

The legislation comes 20 years after Sisterlocks, a San Diego-based natural hair care management company, successfully argued a case involving hair care discrimination. The company argued its practitioners shouldn’t be required to undergo 1,600 hours of training to obtain a state license because natural hair care wasn’t taught in cosmetology schools and is, in large part, a cultural practice.

“This legislation could potentially set a precedent nationally as our case did,” said JoAnne Cornwell, the founder of Sisterlocks.

Mitchell wrote the proposed legislation, SB 188, and before the Senate unanimously passed it, she described the bill’s purpose as twofold: to dispel myths about black hair, its texture and the black hair experience, and to challenge what constitutes “professionalism” in the workplace.

“Eurocentric standards of beauty have established the very underpinnings of what was acceptable and attractive in the media, in academic settings and in the workplace. So even though African Americans were no longer explicitly excluded from the workplace, black features and mannerisms remained unacceptable and ‘unprofessional,’” said Mitchell, a black woman.

The bill states that “blackness” and its associated physical traits — dark skin, kinky and curly hair — have long been equated to “a badge of inferiority” because of racist ideologies. And when black employees conform to narrow, Eurocentric ideas of “professionalism” by altering their appearances, there are serious economic and health consequences because of high costs and harsh chemicals, the bill says.

“Racial capital refers to this idea that the farther away you are from Eurocentric standards, the harder it is for you,” said Nourbese Flint, policy director for Black Women for Wellness, a reproductive justice education and outreach organization. “If you are thinner with straighter hair, lighter skin and lighter eyes, that opens up different spaces for you. The farther away you are from [those standards], the harder it can be to get into certain spaces of privilege.”

Flint said her group has worked on issues relating to hair care partly because black women are the nation’s biggest consumers of hair care products and because altering one’s hair can come with serious health consequences.

“We know the hair care products that black women use have some of the most toxic chemicals on the market,” Flint said, adding that the most hazardous chemicals are found in products for permanently straightening hair. “But in order for us to conform to [Eurocentric] standards, we end up having to use a lot of different chemicals that are harmful to our health.”

A 2018 peer-reviewed study examined the hazards of hair products, including hot-oil treatments, anti-frizz polishes, root stimulators and relaxers. The study, prepared by the Silent Spring Institute, which studies women’s health and the environment, found that the products were made with chemicals linked to asthma, birth defects, reproductive issues and cancer.

These health concerns, in part, have inspired some hairstylists to emphasize education, so their customers wouldn’t have to choose between their hairstyles and their health.

Williams, the salon owner, said she has a doctorate in trichology, which focuses on the care of the hair and scalp, to help women deal with the aftermath of straightening and chemically treating their hair.

“The cosmetology schools spend 1,600 hours teaching us how to destroy our hair. We don’t really have formal instruction and training on how to take care of our hair, so I wanted to position myself as a resource for that,” said Williams, a member of the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. “That led me to opening my salon.”

In Stockton, Valonne Smith left a career of working in biotech and business development to open Natural Do, a salon where she teaches people about the health benefits of going natural.

“A reason people go natural is because they’re losing their hair, which is either from the chemicals, the pulling and the tightness of the weaves,” Smith said.

Michelle Laron Bryant grew up in Los Angeles practicing braids on dolls while her grandmother taught her to care for her natural hair. Now Bryant, a licensed cosmetologist and author of “Celebrating Natural Hair: For Braids, Twists, Locks and Sisterlocks,” is a trainer with Sisterlocks.

When she had her daughter, Bryant wanted to model natural hair at home the same way her grandmother did for her. She saw other moms do the same.

“For a long time, I worked with a lot of mothers and daughters who were interested in being natural at a time when it wasn’t encouraged because we’re taught that in order to get hired or be acceptable, you had to alter our hair texture,” Bryant said. “We literally had to build a community so we could support each other.”

Williams has a doctorate in trichology, which focuses on care of the hair and scalp.
Williams has a doctorate in trichology, which focuses on care of the hair and scalp. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

SB 188 is sponsored by the CROWN Coalition — a national alliance composed of the National Urban League, Western Center on Law & Poverty, Color of Change and Dove. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Black Women Organized for Political Action, the California Black Chamber of Commerce and the California School Boards Assn. have also supported the legislation.

That pleases Williams, the salon owner, who once met Mitchell in a campaign office on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles. She remembers being excited to see a black woman with locs talking about the ways people can feel confident, beautiful and healthy wearing their natural hair.

“Throughout history, our hair has been used against us,” Williams said. “It’s tough to move forward when our identity has been attacked.”

source:  workplace discrimination based on their hair.