The Taste of Freedom

The laundry room in Robert King's New Orleans home has been overtaken by pralines. Trays of them sit on every surface, and the sweet sticky smell of the pecan, sugar and cream concoctions pervades the small room and wafts throughout the rest of the house.

Pralines are a tradition in New Orleans, but King's have an extra spin on them. He calls them "Freelines," a reference to the freedom he gained on February 8, 2001. King had spent the previous three decades in the infamous Louisiana state penitentiary in Angola, an 18,000-acre prison built on the site of a former slave plantation that still functions as a farm with convicts, the majority of them serving life sentences, as the farmhands. There King would make pralines on a tiny stove made from a tin can and toilet paper.

King was not only incarcerated for 29 years at Angola, but he spent all of that time in solitary confinement. The state claims that was because when he arrived at Angola from the Orleans Parish Prison in 1972, where he had been sent for armed robbery, he was "under investigation" for the murder of guard Brent Miller that had recently occurred at Angola. Then in 1973 an inmate was killed in a fight at Angola, and witness testimony sans any physical evidence implicated King (who at the time was known as Robert King Wilkerson).

King always maintained his innocence in the inmate murder, and his codefendant, Grady Brewer, testified all along that he alone had committed the murder in self-defense. King's conviction hinged on the testimony of two inmates who later changed their stories, and revealed that they had been forced to implicate King.

Following that testimony King was released on a plea bargain. He and his international network of supporters maintain that it was not the murder of the inmate or the guard -- which occurred when King was over 100 miles away in New Orleans -- that led to his confinement in solitary, but rather his membership in the Black Panther Party and the fact that he was among the inmates carrying out literacy, self-esteem, anti-rape and other programs at the prison.

King is now free, but two of his close friends -- Albert Woodfox and Herman "Hooks" Wallace -- are still in solitary confinement, having been there over 30 years for Miller's murder. If it weren't for that charge, both would have already been released after serving the sentences for armed robbery that brought them to Angola in the first place. Like King, Woodfox and Wallace were vocal members of the Black Panther Party, active at a time when the party was gaining popularity in the prison and officials were trying their best to suppress it, placing party members in solitary confinement and forcing prisoners to shave their Afros.

There is no physical evidence linking Woodfox and Wallace to Miller's killing, and there are plenty of examples of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct in their convictions, including the exclusion of women and African-Americans from the juries. It was later revealed that the only supposed eye-witness in the cases, inmate Hezekiah Brown, received regular payments of cigarettes for his testimony, and later he was even pardoned and released thanks to the warden's intervention. In 1992 Woodfox was granted a new trial since women and African-Americans were excluded from his jury.

Again, the system seemed almost laughably stacked against him. Among other things, one of the grand jurors convened for an investigation preceding his retrial was Anne Butler, the wife of warden Murray Henderson, who had presided over the original Miller murder investigation. The two had co-written a sensational book about the murder, and admitted they had distributed the book to other grand jurors. When the trial was finally started in 1998, Woodfox was granted a change of venue, presumably to a more neutral location. But the new venue turned out to be Amite, the small town where Miller's family lives. Not surprisingly, Woodfox was again convicted. (And bizarrely enough, the warden Henderson is now incarcerated himself for shooting Butler five times.)

Along with the men's ongoing appeals of their criminal convictions, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of the three men, charging that their three decades in solitary confinement violate the 8th and 14th Amendments, constituting cruel and unusual punishment and the denial of due process. The suit, which names warden Burl Cain as the defendant, was filed in 2001.

In October 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the state that would have prevented the suit, clearing the way for it to go forward. There have been other lawsuits about the conditions of solitary confinement around the country, including suits regarding the Supermax solitary units at the Tamms Supermax Correctional Center in Illinois and Pelican Bay State Prison in California. The MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago filed suit on behalf of mentally ill inmates at Tamms, including many who became mentally ill or had pre-existing conditions horribly exacerbated by the conditions at Tamms.

At Pelican Bay, prisoners went on a hunger strike and filed a class action suit to protest their living conditions.

Journalist Sasha Abramsky describes Pelican Bay this way: "One wall of these cells is perforated steel; inmates can squint out through the holes, but there's nothing to see outside either. In Pelican Bay's Supermax unit, as in most Supermax prisons around the country, the cells are arranged in lines radiating out like spokes from a control hub, so that no prisoner can see another human being-except for those who are double-bunked. Last year, the average population of the Pelican Bay Supermax unit was 1,200 inmates, and on average, 288 men shared their tiny space with a 'cellie.' Since 1995, 12 double-bunked prisoners in the Pelican Bay Supermax unit have been murdered by their cell mates. But near-total isolation is the more typical condition."

In 1995, Pelican Bay inmates won their suit alleging cruel and unusual punishment by guards. However, the U.S. District Court judge ruled that solitary confinement in and of itself is not cruel and unusual. Reports and lawsuits from Pelican Bay, Tamms and other Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units around the country document how inmates subjected to sensory deprivation and almost completely cut off from human contact suffer extreme physical and mental effects, leading to behavior like self mutilation, attempted suicide, the eating of feces and other expressions of desperation.

During a visit in early December, Woodfox noted that the solitary confinement conditions at Angola are actually notably better than at these high-tech Supermax units. The men in the "CCR" (Closed Cell Restricted) unit at Angola, where Woodfox is housed, are able to talk to other inmates through their barred cell doors and chat with other inmates on their tier face-to-face during thrice-weekly free hours in the tier hallway or exercise yard. They can also receive a limited number of contact visits. Wallace is currently in a more punitive solitary unit known as Camp J, where the other two men have also spent time. One of the features of Camp J is a room known as "the dungeon."

The men say conditions there have improved considerably in past years, but King remembers it harshly: "you are buck naked in the freezing air and don't get enough to eat, so that you look like you're starved when you come out."

More than the daily conditions of life in solitary at Angola, however, the ACLU lawsuit is meant to challenge the indefinite and arbitrary nature of their confinement, and to serve as a precedent for other such cases around the country. Wallace and Woodfox have their cases reviewed every 90 days by a board that is supposed to determine if they should still be held in solitary, with the main issue being whether they would pose a danger being in the general population.

But every time the review comes up, according to their lawyer Nick Trenticosta, the board decides to continue their confinement based on "the nature of the original offense."

In other words, even though the offense (for which they claim innocence) occurred over 30 years ago and they have had no major discipline problems since, the original offense is still grounds to consider them dangerous. This, despite the fact that inmate stabbings, rapes and even murders are a regular occurrence at Angola; and Woodfox and Wallace actually spent most of their time when they were in the general population working to decrease this violence.

"Even if you say it's legal to hold someone in solitary confinement for 30 years, you've got to show you've provided fair and proper review of whether they should stay in there," Trenticosta said. "If you look at these guys' prison records, they're okay prisoners, they haven't done anything to justify staying in there. The board that is meeting every 90 days is a sham."

Trenticosta thinks the men are being held in solitary because of their political views, specifically because of their membership in the Panthers. But even more than that he thinks that their positive attitudes and strong leadership qualities pose a threat to the status quo at the prison and specifically to the authority of the warden, Burl Cain, who has publicly referred to Angola as his "kingdom."

"What makes them dangerous is their ability to educate other inmates," he said. "And it's not just on political thought, economics, how this country works. It's that they teach people that you're a human being and you have value. When you teach this to inmate after inmate, you start something. The prison officials can not have independent thinkers or people who believe their lives are worth something, because if somebody has dignity and believes their life is worth something, they won't stand there and take what is being done to them."

Woodfox, who sports a moderate-sized Afro and looks surprisingly fit and energetic despite his situation, says that during their brief time in general population they did have a significant effect on the inmates' moods and conditions.

"Rape and sex slavery virtually stopped because we would make it clear that you could not go and victimize these young kids who were coming into the prison," he said. "It was run like a plantation, and the method of control was secrecy and division. So we started organizing much like we were doing on the streets. We bridged the gap between black and white prisoners, we held political classes to develop consciousness, and inmates began to complain about things they had felt powerless about before."

After he and Wallace were placed in solitary, he says the programs they had instituted quickly collapsed. The nail in the coffin was when inmate Irving Breaux, whom they referred to as "Life," was killed trying to defend a young man from being raped.

"That's when Life died," Woodfox said. "They tried to keep things going, especially the anti-rape squad, but [prison officials] essentially started terrorizing everyone."

In talking to Roy Hollingsworth, another man in CCR, one can see the effect that Woodfox's leadership and philosophy can have. Hollingsworth boasts about being the baddest of the bad while in general population. He ended up there at age 18 after killing someone during the course of a robbery and he became the ringleader of drug-dealing, pimping and other illicit operations that go on freely at Angola. He killed another inmate, he says in self-defense, and ended up in CCR. He describes the mentorship he has received from Woodfox (through the bars and walls) since then as almost a religious revelation.

"I found out I can be somebody, that I can be productive, and that's what motivates me," said Hollingsworth, 48, in between joking with Woodfox through the walls of adjacent visiting cubicles. "I'm not going to allow you to say my life is nothing. I took a life, but now I'm going to stand up and make something of my life."

He says that while before he was acting out of pure blind anger, now he sees himself and other low-income African-American youth as "puppets of the system."

"The factories are using us as tools, and the corporations are making all this money off selling us music about the thug life," he noted. "Then we start killing each other because of what we hear in the music, and we end up here where a guy can't see what's going on because he's too busy trying to keep a pack of cigarettes and a bar of deodorant."

Along with monetary damages, the civil suit calls for Woodfox and Wallace to be moved back into the general population. Woodfox thinks they have a "90 percent" chance of winning the lawsuit. His lawyer in the criminal case, Scott Fleming, also feels confident he will prevail. "I feel like we've proven these guys are innocent, and deserve to have heir convictions thrown out," he said. "We're just waiting for a court to take a look at this and agree with us."

Fleming noted that even if the convictions are overturned he expects the state to retry the men, given that they've been "fighting this thing tooth and nail."

"The state seems to want to win at all costs," he said. "Race is the most inflammatory aspect of life in the south and this is all about race."

Woodfox's goal is nothing less than complete freedom. He says that he has become an environmentalist while incarcerated, and longs to go camping and visit national parks. Talking to him it is clear that while 23 hours a day he is confined to an approximately 60-square-foot space with a bed and metal sink and toilet, his mind is usually far away.

"I've never become institutionalized," he says. "That's how I sustain myself, I've never let prison define my life." King says a similar attitude kept him going all those years.

"Even when I was in prison, prison wasn't in me," says King, who has visited South Africa, Portugal, Holland and other countries on speaking tours and written his autobiography since his release. "When I was in there I would think about getting out, about making candy, about what I would say on the labels, about the taste of freedom."

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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