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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.



we can learn how growing up in the inner-city housing projects can teach you to be a better person.


The author in front of mural in the Ramona Gardens housing project. Photo by Pablo Aguilar, 2005.


Nietzsche warned me about gazing too long into the abyss, but I didn’t listen. It gazed back into me. After spending my early years with extended family in Tijuana (Baja California) and Hollywood (Alta California), I spent my formative years with my immediate family in East Los Angeles’ notorious Ramona Gardens public housing project—better known as the Big Hazard projects, named after the dominant gang.

During the ten-year period that we lived there, it was considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. From gangs to drugs; from police abuse to housing authority harassment; from drive-by shootings to death; from high school drop-outs (or push-outs) to chronic unemployment; from abject poverty to welfare. If you weren’t raised in the projects and lived through its darkness, just “sit down”—to quote the street philosopher and rapper, Kendrick Lamar—and listen

Defend yourself

If you’re white and move into the lily-white suburbs, you’ll be cordially greeted with a “hello neighbor” and given a beautiful basket of fresh fruits, gourmet cheeses, and crackers. In the case of my brother Salomón and I, when moving into the projects, we were “warmly” greeted by a bunch of Chicano kids, seeking to officially induct us into the neighborhood with arranged fights.

Fortunately, as an eight-year-old, Salomón mimicked the best Bruce Lee kung fu moves he would see in films, and his opponent quit without throwing a punch. When it was my turn, as a six-year-old, I followed in his footsteps and raised my arms in victory. As we were welcomed into the neighborhood, we learned a hard lesson with this rite of passage: To survive in the projects, you must be able to defend yourself. While I don’t expect outsiders to understand, I’m also indifferent to individuals who don’t want to learn about the norms and traditions of the mean streets of East Los Angeles

We are not brown savages and don’t need you to save us

I will never forget the summer when the white, born-again Christians arrived in their white buses into the projects to “save” us—poor, Catholic Chicana and Chicano kids. To lure the neighborhood kids, they enticed us with free field trips, money, and food. These invaders didn’t ask permission from our parents; they just took us. As a 10-year-old, I couldn’t resist all of the goodies. Once on the bus, I recall singing Christian songs, where the white escorts tossed dollar bills to the best singers, like brown monkeys doing tricks for treats.

One hour later, we arrived at a large auditorium with an all-you-can-eat buffet. I loved the desserts, especially the chocolate cake with white frosting. After lunch, the blond, blue-eyed preacher delivered a sermon, which I didn’t understand one word, where I kept thinking: “Where’s the Virgin de Guadalupe?” He then instructed us—between 50 to 75 brown kids—to go into a room in small groups. Once there, they told us to take off all our clothes and put on blue plastic gowns, similar to hospital patient gowns. They then led us inside a large pool, where, one-by-one we were fully dunked into the water and baptized by the preacher. I didn’t feel born again. Looking back, I wonder what the white savior preacher was thinking: “Let’s go to the jungle of East Los Angeles and save these brown savages!”

You don’t have to breathe it in

While former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama inhaled marijuana during their youth, when I was first offered to smoke at 11 years old, I didn’t. On a hot summer night, I was playing basketball at the gym, when one of my childhood friends asked me (more like told me) to follow him outside to meet up with his older brother.

I originally thought I was going to get jumped since his brother was in the gang. While I didn’t show any fear, adhering to the rules of the projects, I was happily surprised that they actually invited me to smoke. Offering sage advice, my friend said, “When you inhale, hold your breath so it gets into your lungs!” I quickly recalled a movie from Murchison Elementary School, where smoking cigarettes caused black lungs. While pretending to smoke, as they passed the joint, they got high. Ten minutes later, I returned to the gym to shoot hoops. Given the prison-like conditions we lived under, being treated like wards of the state, as rational actors, temporarily escaping from a harsh reality makes life bearable.

Protectors or Oppressors? 

In the lily-white suburbs, the police officers (or cops) live up to their motto of “To protect and to serve.” In the projects, they behave like an occupation force in a foreign country. As poor, brown kids from the projects, when approached by the cops, we knew the drills. When walking, stop immediately, get on knees and put hands behind your head. When standing near a wall or building, turn around spread legs and put hands against the wall. When driving, turn off the engine, put hands on the steering wheel and don’t talk back.

Like “good” Mexicans, be obedient! “Yes, officer. No, officer.” While driving my navy blue ’67 Mustang (a gift from my sister Catalina) as a 16-year-old, I was pulled over by the cops. The driver got out of his car, yelled expletives, walked towards me and pointed his gun ten-feet away from me. My crime: making a rolling stop! One wrong move on my part, like demanding my civil rights, and I could’ve been killed.

Using the shame of poverty to fuel yourself 

There’s nothing romantic about being poor, despite what Gandhi preached and practiced in India. When my mother Carmen—a domestic worker for our 40 years—sent me to La Paloma Market, I was always embarrassed to use food stamps. Back then, they came in a booklet with Monopoly-looking money to purchase groceries. (Now, the government issues EBT cards.) In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been embarrassed since all of my childhood friends were also on food stamps and welfare. Speaking of being ashamed, when my best friend and I visited the amusement park Six Flags Magic Mountain in our teens, we agreed to say that we lived next to General Hospital, if we met anyone. It was like the scene in La Bamba (1984) when the popular Chicano singer Ritchie Valens was ashamed to tell his white girlfriend Donna where he lived—a barrio in Pacoima. Now that I’m older and wiser, when conservatives try to make me feel ashamed of growing up poor and on welfare, I always ask them, “What about welfare in the egregious forms of tax breaks and subsidies for elites, agribusinesses, and corporations?”

Your roots are your strength

Since abandoning my family and homeboys to pursue a degree in mathematics at UCLA as a 17-year-old freshman, over the years, I grew to appreciate and defend where I came from without apologies. Whenever I mention that I was raised in the projects in East Los Angeles, people usually ask, “How come you never joined a gang?”

With a straight face, I quickly reply: “Actually, I submitted my gang application, but it was rejected because I was too thin to defend the neighborhood!” Jokes aside, if I had the fearless mentality and physical attributes of many of my childhood friends, where they joined the gang, instead of spending many years in higher education, I would’ve been doing time at Folsom and San Quentin.

While I don’t romanticize gangs, I also don’t cast judgment on my childhood homeboys, where the odds were against us from the start. For me, it helped that I excelled in mathematics, where, like my brother Salomón who studied (and mastered) art at Art Center College of Design (B.F.A.) and UCLA (M.F.A), my special skill was my ticket out of the projects. I only wish that everyone else from the projects had (and has) the same opportunities to pursue higher education to succeed.

Don’t blame the victims, blame the systemic conditions

When we analyze and try to understand the bleak plight of residents in public housing projects throughout the country, let’s not blame the victims. Instead, let’s put the blame of their harsh conditions on a capitalist society that houses mostly brown and black bodies in oppressive environments with hopeless and traumatic outcomes.

American society—past and present—has neither been fair nor just to brown and black people. Structural racism. Racial segregation. Divide and conquer. Police abuse. Concentrated poverty. State surveillance. !Ya basta!

If we, as a nation, invest in these communities—our communities!—like “we” do to maintain the military-industrial complex, which profits from endless wars, like in the most recent case of Iran, we would immediately end the despair of los de abajo in America’s barrios and ghettos.


Why Don’t We Raise the RBG Flag?

Why don’t we raise the RBG flag? The answer, quite simply, is because we raise the Red Flag of Revolution. The red, black and green flag designed by Marcus Garvey has been popularly adopted to represent Black nationalism in Amerika. People may ask, “Don’t you believe Black people have been constituted as a nation within the U.S.?”

Yes, we do, specifically in the “Black Belt” South under the post-slavery conditions of neo-feudalism (share-cropping) and “Jim Crow” segregation. We also believe that the U.S. was constituted as a “white” nation under the conditions of colonization, genocide, slavery and racial segregation. But as Huey P. Newton pointed out, the U.S. has ceased to a nation and has become a globe-reaching empire, which makes it impossible for other nations to have an independent existence.

If the Black (New Afrikan) Nation can no longer meet the criteria to be a nation, and colonizationnational independence is precluded by Empire’s global domination, then what is the path to Black liberation? It is World Proletarian Socialist Revolution, which will create a world without borders and nation states, based upon revolutionary people’s power and the leadership of the world proletariat.

The World has become too small for independent nation states, and too advanced for capitalist-imperialism and private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism has made itself obsolete, and it needs to be swept aside in the interests of humanity.

Nations and nationalism belong to a specific time period in history, the period of rising capitalism and throwing off the yoke of feudal oppression. As Stalin pointed out, “The national question is essentially a peasant question.” The peasant’s demand for land and liberation from feudal oppression is championed by the rising bourgeoisie who establish their borders and claim a monopoly on the use of force within them, and the exclusive right to exploit the natural resources and labor power of the proletarians within those borders, as well as the right to levy, enact laws and conscript soldiers.

But as imperialism develops, the national bourgeoisie are superseded by and subordinated to the imperialist bourgeoisie, which increasingly becomes transnational. Formerly independent nation states are converted to junior partners in global imperialism or dependent neo-colonial puppet regimes. The path to liberation thus switches from national liberation to overthrowing Empire and creating global revolutionary intercommunalism as a stepping stone to global classless society.

There cannot be a “Black revolution,” simply because there is only one monopoly ruling class oppressing everyone on the planet, and it is in everybody’s interest to overthrow them and seize control over the means of production from them. The world proletariat is black, brown and white, in essence, it has no nationality, no gender. The proletariat is all of us who must sell our labor power to the capitalists for less than it is worth. It is also the “Last Class in History,” because it is its historic destiny to liberate itself by ending the division of society into exploiting and exploited classes.

The proletariat’s flag is red, for revolution, and for the blood of slaves, serfs and workers shed over centuries in struggle against oppression and for liberation. Realizing that nationalism is now a dead end, why would we want to promote it? Revolution belongs to the people – ALL THE PEOPLE – who dare to be free. As Malcolm X put it;

 “I believe that there will be ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based on the color of the skin…”

Malcolm X also said: “You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic; you have to have someone else’s blood to suck to be a capitalist. You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker… It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, the capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”



The Supreme Court Decision That Kept Suburban Schools Segregated

A 1974 Supreme Court decision found that school segregation was allowable if it wasn’t being done on purpose. AP

America recently marked the 65-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education – a landmark case intended to abolish the “separate-but-equal” doctrine of racial segregation in schools.

But the racial makeup of today’s schools actually owes itself to a series of other court decisions – including one issued 45 years ago on July 25, 1974. The Milliken v. Bradley decision sanctioned a form of segregation that has allowed suburbs to escape being included in court-ordered desegregation and busing plans with nearby cities.

The Milliken decision recognized “de facto” segregation – segregation that occurs as a result of circumstances, not law. This allowed schools in the North to maintain racially separate schools at the same time southern schools were being ordered by the courts to desegregate. By giving suburbs a pass from large mandated desegregation attempts, it built a figurative wall around white flight enclaves, essentially shielding them from the “crisis” of urban education.

Upholding segregation

Outside a few voluntary and limited programs such as METCO in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, or Chapter 220 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that enabled a small number of children from cities to attend schools in the suburbs or more affluent areas, northern school districts remained largely segregated.

The decision ruled that social segregation was permissible and therefore exempt from court-ordered, “forced” desegregation plans. That is, the court said, if segregation occurred because of certain “unknowable factors” such as economic changes and racial fears – not a law – then it’s legal.

Originating in Detroit, a major destination of the Great Migration, the mass movement of southern African Americans to northern cities, the decision dictated how desegregation would proceed outside the South, if at all.

Federal courts had issued rulings that helped eradicate legal segregation – primarily in the South – through the 1968 Green v. School Board of New Kent County and 1969 Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education decisions, even employing military force.

But the nation largely understood segregation to be an issue confined to the South. Milliken brought the freedom struggle’s call for integration to the North.

A new legal front

Twenty years after the Brown decision, the NAACP, Urban League and civil rights activists documented how segregation led to underfunded and inferior schooling across the North in cities like ChicagoNew York and Detroit.

Black activists in Detroit like Rev. Albert Cleage, the NAACP and black parents in segregated housing and schools began to demand education reform as the freedom struggle intensified during the 1940s. They demanded things that ranged from community control to integration in all schools as opposed to token desegregation. By 1970, the NAACP demanded a desegregated school system as promised by Brown and filed a lawsuit against the governor, William Milliken.

As the Milliken case worked its way through the courts from 1970 to 1974, the nature of public education was changing. Millions of whites abandoned the cities for suburban enclaves. Like the rest of the North, Detroit experienced dramatic population shifts that decimated public schools. From the 1950s through 1970sDetroit lost over 30% of its white population to the suburbs, where the population climbed to over 3 million. By the 1970s students of color comprised nearly 75% of a once majority-white system. More affluent whites and the few families of color who fled left behind a depleted tax base that starved public schools, as described in Jeffrey Mirel’s “The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System.”

Desegregation dreams deferred

To address the issue of persistent segregation, the Supreme Court consented in the 1971 Swann v. Mecklenburg decision to busing students outside their neighborhood schools in North Carolina as a solution to segregation.

Following the spirit of Swann, a United States district judge for the Eastern District of Michigan named Stephen J. Roth, issued one of the most extensive desegregation orders of the era in 1972. Roth’s plan called for the two-way integration of 780,000 students across not only Detroit, but school districts in a tri-county area.

The plan was never put into action because of the 1974 Supreme Court Milliken decision.

Districts could still voluntarily bus – but busing was so unpopular and politically untenable in 1974 that few attempted it in any serious manner. A narrow 5-4 majority of justices determined that “racial imbalance” in Detroit – and by inference in other U.S. cities – was caused by “de facto” segregation.

Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his concurring opinion that segregation in Detroit was “caused by unknown and perhaps unknowable factors such as in-migration, birth rates, economic changes, or cumulative acts of private racial fears.” In other words, the justices in the majority – most of them appointed by President Richard Nixon – found that the suburbs should not be subject to busing.

In a scathing dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall, the lead counsel for the NAACP when the Brown case was brought to the court and who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967, wrote: “After 20 years of small, often difficult steps (toward equal justice under law) the Court today takes a giant step backwards.” He said the Court revived “the same separate and inherently unequal education … afforded in the past.”

Milliken put forth the convenient narrative that segregation in the North was natural and therefore permissible. It also freed northern school districts from being forced to participate in large-scale solutions to segregation and unequal education outside their boundaries.

I believe continuing to ignore Milliken covers up the ongoing segregation of America’s schools today and the nation’s collective, ongoing failure to improve public education in the spirit of Brown.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.