United States: Innocent Black Panther freed after 45 years

Albert Woodfox was finally released on February 19 — his 69th birthday — from the notorious Angola state prison in Louisiana. He was jailed for 45 years, 43 of which were spent in solitary confinement in a two-by-three metre cell.

Solitary confinement is becoming widely recognised as a form of torture. Woodfox's ordeal was the longest time any prisoner in the US has been held in solitary.

Woodfox and another prisoner, Herman Wallace, were convicted in a farcical trial in 1972 of killing prison guard Brent Miller. There was no forensic evidence against the two Black men, and the testimony against them by other prisoners was made in exchange for cuts in sentences and other perks. The main witness was granted a pardon and released as a reward for his perjury.

Their real crime was forming a chapter of the revolutionary Black liberation group, the Black Panther Party, in the jail — and organising against the horrible conditions in Angola.

Another prisoner, fellow Black Panther Robert King, was also convicted and the trio became famous as the Angola Three. All three were in solitary for decades.

Campaign

For many years, Amnesty International and other groups campaigned to free them. King, who spent 29 years in solitary, was released in 2001 when his conviction was overturned. Since his release, he has campaigned for the freeing of Woodfox and Wallace, travelling around the world.

Wallace, who was held in solitary for 40 years, was freed in 2013 and died of cancer three days later.

The campaign and the facts it brought to light eventually convinced the widow of the slain guard that those convicted of killing her husband were innocent. She released a statement in June last year, saying: “I think it's time the state stop acting like there is any evidence that Albert Woodfox killed Brent.”

Woodfox's conviction was overturned twice by federal courts, in 1998 and again in 2008. But each time the racist Louisiana authorities retried him and he was again convicted on the discredited “evidence”.

Longtime Angola warden Burl Cain said he would keep Woodfox in solitary, regardless of his crimes, as “I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism.” Cain resigned last year after he came under investigation for making real estate deals with family members of Angola prisoners.

In 2014, a federal judge ruled that Woodfox should be freed on the basis of racial discrimination in his last retrial. The Louisiana attorney general announced he would retry him again.

Another judge then ordered his release, in part because his long time in solitary was racially motivated. But a higher court, notorious for its right-wing make up, overruled that judge.

Hell hole

Angola prison is so named because it was erected on the site of a slave plantation called Angola, itself named for the fact that most of its slaves were captured in the African country. It was built in 1901, and throughout the long period of Jim Crow segregation became known as a “hellhole” — especially for Black prisoners. Many were killed by guards.

In 1930, famous blues singer Leadbelly was a prisoner in Angola. A 1992 biography of Leadbelly described Angola as “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930”. The authors said prisoners were viewed by the authorities as “niggers of the lowest order”.

In the 1940s, a former Angola prisoner wrote a series of articles entitled “Hell on Angola”. In 1952, 31 prisoners cut their Achilles tendons in protest at the conditions. The same year Collier's magazine called Angola “the worst prison in America”.

In 1971, the American Bar Association described the conditions in Angola as “medieval, squalid and horrifying”. These were the conditions that Woodfox, Wallace and the other members of the prison chapter of the Black Panther Party were protesting against, which led to the frame-up of the Angola Three

The Black Panther Party was originally organised as a Black nationalist group in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, to counter police violence against African Americans in that largely Black city. Violence against Blacks to keep them subordinate dates back to slavery, and was continued under Jim Crow and after. The racist violence driving the current Blacks Lives Matter movement has a long history.

The Panthers were inspired by African American revolutionary Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, and were an armed group. They organised armed patrols to follow police to discourage police misconduct. The consternation this sparked among the police and government authorities is not hard to imagine.

The group's first action that gained national attention was when some Panthers sat in the observation gallery in the state capitol with (unloaded) guns.

In the context of a burgeoning Black Power movement, the example of the Panthers soon spread nationally, especially among Black youth.

It had become such a force that J Edgar Hoover, the viciously anti-communist and racist head of the FBI, called the party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. He supervised an extensive program of surveillance, infiltration, perjury, police harassment, frame-ups, assassinations and many other tactics to discredit and criminalise the party.

Government repression initially contributed to the party's growth as killings and arrests of Panthers increased support for the group in the Black community and broader political left. It reached its high point in 1970, with thousands of members and offices in 68 cities.

It also inspired Blacks in jail, who organised chapters, largely spontaneously. Woodfox joined the Panthers shortly before he was given a five-year sentence for armed robbery. People who knew him said he was a changed man after joining the Panthers, no longer a criminal but a political activist. Once back in Angola, Woodfox organised the Black Panther chapter.

This conversion is reminiscent of Malcolm X's earlier conversion by the Nation of Islam from a criminal in prison to a militant Black nationalist.

Surviving solitary

The Angola Three decided they would cope with solitary confinement by not focusing on their surroundings and predicament, but on keeping abreast of what was happening in society. Woodfox credits this decision to keeping them sane. Solitary frequently drives people crazy.

Another factor was that they could read. This “was one of the tools we used to remain focused and to stay connected to the outside world”, Woodfox said in a February 22 interview on Democracy Now! after his release. He said he read “history books, books on Malcolm X, Dr Martin Luther King, Franz Fanon, James Baldwin — you know just any kind of literature that I could basically get a hold of”.

Woodfox and King are pursuing a lawsuit against their cruel and unusual punishment. Forty-three years in solitary certainly meets that definition.

King spoke to Democracy Now! on what it meant to him that Woodfox was finally freed. King, who was in the crowd that greeted Woodfox upon his release, said the occasion “was joyous … It was a good thing for the crowd. It was a good thing for me personally.

“It was a victory for justice finally being rendered, if you want to call it justice. Justice delayed of course, justice delayed is justice denied. But nevertheless, it happened.”

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