On October 4, Herman Wallace died in New Orleans. He had just been released from Louisiana’s legendary Angola prison on October 3rd where had spent 41 years in the words-cannot-describe solitary confinement wing of America’s toughest prison. The next day, he died with the status of a free man.
Herman Wallace’s life is a story of crime, injustice, and the fight for freedom. In 1971, Wallace was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to fifty years in prison. During his lengthy prison term, he joined the prison chapter of the Black Panthers’ Party (BPP). Wallace, Robert King, and Albert Woodfox became very active in the party and were known as the Angola Three.
Their work as members of the Black Panthers’ Party focused on improving the living conditions for the prisoners, ending segregation within the prison, and stopping systematic rape and violence that occurred in the prison. The Angola Three organized petitions, hunger strikes, and other nonviolent protests to reach these goals.
Angola Prison Guard Killed
In 1972, a young prison guard at Angola, Brent Miller, was stabbed to death. Wallace and Woodfox were charged and convicted for the killing. King was a suspected accomplice but was never charged with the crime. Following their conviction for killing the prison guard, Wallace and Woodfox were removed from the general prison population and put in solitary confinement. They remained in solitary until 1997.
At that time, Malik Rahim, a former BPP member, and Scott Fleming, a law student, discovered the lost and forgotten men languishing in Angola’s solitary confinement. They re-examined the cases and found numerous flaws, including race and gender discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel. Federal judges agreed. Yet they were not released.
Herman Wallace kept in solitary confinement
Wallace and Woodfox remained in solitary confinement until 2008 when they were moved to the maximum-security wing in Angola prison. The men won two appeals and Woodfox was granted full habeas corpus release. Yet both men remained in prisoned. The next year, they were returned to solitary confinement after the Louisiana prosecutor appealed.
Wallace was moved to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center where a closed cell isolation wing had been recently and specially constructed. Woodfox was moved to David Wade Correctional Center where he was stripped of his phone and visitation rights.
Both men have suffered from medical problems related to their long periods in solitary confinement and the sedentary lifestyle imposed. The sentences for their original crimes have already expired.
Herman Wallace released from prison
The men have been the focus of documentaries, humanitarian projects, and numerous legal appeals. Legal teams have worked for years to obtain the men’s release or, at a minimum, their removal from solitary and closed-cell confinement as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Robert King, who was the first of the Angola Three to be released, helped to develop international attention in these cases. King spent 29 years in solitary confinement.
Many people fought against their release. Louisiana’s attorney general, James Caldwell, asserted that he would fight with every fiber of his being for the men to remain in solitary. The Warden of Angola and Hunt prisons asserts, Burl Cain, asserts that the men should remain in solitary because they ascribe to “Black Pantherism”.
In July, 2013, Amnesty International called for Herman Wallace’s release on humanitarian grounds. Amnesty noted his advanced liver cancer, the cruel conditions under which he had lived for decades, and that Wallace had been convicted on scant, contradictory, and unreliable evidence.
Wallace had always maintained his innocence in the stabbing death of the prison guard and asserted that he had been convicted because of his activism in the prison’s chapter of the Black Panthers Party.
On October 1, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Jackson ordered Wallace’s immediate release and stated that he would issue a contempt order against any person who would attempt to delay his release. Wallace spent 41 years in solitary confinement.
Three days later, Herman Wallace died. He was 71-years old.
Angola Three member remains in prison
Albert Woodfox, the last member of the Angola Three, remains in solitary confinement, subject to daily strip and cavity searches. He has spent 42 years in solitary confinement. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recently stated that Woodfox’s lengthy confinement amounts to torture in violation of international law.
Before his death, Herman Wallace asked his lawyers to continue to challenge his unconstitutional confinement. He hopes to prevent this cruel treatment from happening to any other inmates.