Robert King and Albert Woodfox tell their story, discuss solitary confinement
By: Sam Mathers, News Editor
Known as the “Bloodiest Prison in the South” throughout the 1960s, the sinister past of the Louisiana State Penitentiary is found far in the darkest corners of American history. Often referred to as Angola Prison, its 18,000 acres sit on a former slave plantation called Angola, after the country in Africa where its slaves originated. In 1880, former Confederate major Samuel Lawrence James purchased the Angola plantation, after being given the lease to the Louisiana State Prison (then located in New Orleans) in 1869. He ran he plantation using prisoners that he housed in the Old Slave Quarters, also leasing them to private companies for levee construction. In 1901, the Louisiana State Prison was opened in the plantation facility.
Sponsored by the departments of History, Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies, as well as RESRG and the African Caribbean Students Association, Lakehead University was visited on Thursday by Robert King and Albert Woodfox – the two surviving members of the Angola 3, who between the two of them, spent 72 years in solitary confinement for a crime they did not commit.
Thunder Bay recently made headlines after Adam Capay was found to have been in solitary confinement in the Thunder Bay District Jail for four years.
King began by saying they did not come to share their horrific story with the hopes of making the situation in Thunder Bay and in Canada seem less dire. He stated: “It is our belief that it doesn’t matter if you are in solitary confinement – you could be there for one day, twenty-four hours, it could have the same impact if you’ve been there 24 years. We aren’t here to try to console anybody in the miseries here because ours is out of proportion in the States. No, it is miserable regardless of the amount, the quantity, or the quality.”
King and Woodfox, along with Herman Wallace were sent to Angola in 1971 for armed robbery. It was here they would join the Black Panther Party, seeking to improve the conditions of the prison through organization and resistance. Woodfox stated: “The voice of the street was stronger than my mother, and the voice of the Black Panthers was stronger than the street.”
Originally called The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the black nationalist organization began in 1966 in response to police brutality in Oakland, California. The party took advantage of California’s open-carry gun law that allowed an individual to carry a loaded rifle or shotgun, provided it was openly displayed and not pointed at anyone. Party members would tail police officers to monitor incidents of brutality, and when confronted by police officers, would cite the law. Tensions between officials and the Black Panthers would run extremely high over the next decade, resulting in major loss of life on both sides.
Woodfox states: “I was a political prisoner by definition and by actions. We successfully formed the only recognized chapter of the Black Panther party in a prison. And for that, the state locked me in a cell, and framed me for the murder of a prison guard. And their sole intent was to break me, which they failed to do. To let me die in a cell. Fortunately, they failed.”
He, King, and Wallace were placed in solitary confinement for the murder of the guard, despite there being no physical evidence to link them to the crime. King was not charged, though he was believed to be linked to the murder. He states he wasn’t even in prison when the officer was killed, and was 150 miles away. King would spend 29 years in solitary confinement. Woodfox would spend 44 years, and Wallace would spend 41 – being granted compassionate release a mere 3 days before dying of cancer.
Woodfox spoke of some of the ways in which they organized, particularly a 45-day hunger strike to petition for food slots to be cut into the bars: “They used to put used to put our food on the floor and slide it underneath the door. That was the manner in which they fed us. And you often hear the term ‘level of consciousness.’ And what the means is that in order for you to know something is wrong, you have to develop a level of consciousness. You have to develop a moral indignation as to what’s being done to you as an individual or you as a member of humanity. At some point, we realized the indignity of having to bend down and pull our food underneath a cell door… so, we petitioned the administration and asked them to cut food slots in the bars so that we could be fed in a more humane and dignified way…we didn’t have ay idea that this ordeal would last 18 months and that it would take a 45-day hunger strike just to allow us to hold our tray and eat through the bars rather than putting it underneath the door.”
This wasn’t the first demonstration by prisoners at Angola. In 1952, 31 inmates cut their Achilles tendons to protest the brutality and hard work of the prison.
King and Woodfox also petitioned for access to the law library, where they spent a lot of time studying and working on their cases. Woodfox states: “We realized that we couldn’t continue to advance social struggle even in prison, with physical acts, physical combat. But we also knew that we weren’t properly prepared to advance the struggle any further, so King, Herman and myself, we set out to teach ourselves law, both criminal and civil. And after learning enough at least within the court, we began to challenge some of the conditions and the acts of our solitary confinement in the court system.” The men filed lawsuits challenging the conditions of their confinement, and while it was not made a landmark decision by the Supreme Court, King says that “it became sort of a landmark decision. And so lots of people are using our case to appeal to the administration…and people have been released as a result of that.”
Woodfox was released only last year, on February 19th, his birthday. Of life after his release, he says: “The question I’ve been asked most since I’ve been free… is how, how did we do it? How did I manage to survive and to build myself as a human being, to build moral character, to build principles and values, where so many other men failed? I have no idea. If I figure it out, you’re going to have to pay for it. I can tell you this: King and I and Herman, we used to talk about the journey of why: why this, why that, why this. More often than not, the journey of why can take a lifetime, and if you’re lucky enough to find the answer it can drive you insane. So, we try, King and I, since we’ve been free we’ve tried to stay away from the journey of why and concern ourselves more with what is it that we can do.”
As free men, Woodfox and King want abolish solitary confinement. They also want to look deeper into the issue and into the 13th amendment, which states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
According to King and Woodfox, a single line in the amendment allows slavery to exist in a modern context within the walls of prisons. What this means, Woodfox says, is that “anyone in America, who is convicted by law, you become a slave of the state.” By this standard, Angola’s ties to slavery go far deeper than the history of its land.
King, Woodfox and Wallace were all eventually exonerated, after spending most of their adult lives in a 6×9 cell. Woodfox wants the story of the Angola 3 to send a message of hope, stating: “My standing here before you today, I would hope, that if you walk away from this with anything else, with nothing else…I am a testament to the strength and determination of the human spirit. In life, we are going to face a lot of things. Without unity, we are destined to fail.”