New Orleans, Jan. 7 — Angola 3 supporters, numbering over 100, braved the unusual, subfreezing, windy weather in New Orleans to attend oral arguments in the case of Albert Woodfox at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today. After every single seat in the 80-person en banc courtroom was filled, an overflow courtroom with audio of the hearing was opened for another three dozen supporters.
The 5th Circuit will decide whether to uphold U.S. District Judge James Brady’s ruling last February that overturned Woodfox’s 1972 conviction. This was the third time his conviction was overturned; this time because of racial discrimination in the selection of his grand jury foreperson.
The Angola 3 are three African-American men who were imprisoned in Louisiana in the early 1970s, who began to expose and organize against segregation, rape, systemic corruption and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000 acre, former slave plantation called Angola.
These men — Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King — organized hunger strikes and work stoppages and formed a chapter of the Black Panther Party. They called for investigations into inhumane practices. After elected officials and the media started to look at the conditions at Angola, the three were charged with the murder of a guard, a crime they did not commit, and thrown into 6 by 9 foot solitary cells in an attempt to silence them.
King, released in 2001 after 29 years of solitary confinement, dedicated his life to freeing his two comrades and has built national and international support for the Angola 3. This past October, Wallace’s conviction was overturned and he was released. But he had advanced liver cancer and lived in freedom for only three days.
Woodfox, confined to solitary confinement for 41 years, is the last of the Angola 3 still in prison. He endures strip and cavity searches as often as six times a day. He was not allowed to attend today’s hearing, but his presence was keenly felt as supporters wore bright yellow scarves reading “Justice for Albert Woodfox” on one side and “Stop Solitary” on the other.
At a press conference and rally after the hearing, Robert King urged continued support for Woodfox. He reminded the crowd that in June there will be a hearing on their civil rights lawsuit contesting the use of solitary confinement.
Malik Rahim, a leader of the Common Ground Collective and a former member of the Black Panther Party, told the media that Woodfox would be freed, not by the court across the street but by the court of public opinion. “We have to let the state know that ‘the good old boys’ won’t run West Feliciana Parish!” he said, referring to the parish where Angola is located.
Rahim was recently successful in having the New Orleans City Council pass a resolution recognizing the Angola 3. This is the first time any elected officials in Louisiana have recognized the injustice in the Angola 3 case.
Speaking for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which has mounted a strong campaign against solitary confinement, was the Rev. Dr. Patricia Teel Bates. “As a faith leader, I am here to support the immediate release of Mr. Albert Woodfox, and to call for an end to the immorality and inhumanity of his confinement. As I speak, we remember that over 80,000 men, women and youth in U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers are subjected to solitary confinement on any given day, detained in a cell alone for 23 hours a day for months, years, decades. Such conditions have long been considered a form of torture.”
Other speakers included longtime supporter, artist Jackie Sumell, who worked with Herman Wallace to write and produce the recent film “Herman’s House.” Also speaking was Ron Harpell, who produced a documentary film about Robert King called “Hard Times.”
Also in attendance were representatives of Amnesty International, whose members hand-delivered 50,000 signatures on a petition in October urging the Louisiana attorney general’s office to drop their appeal of Woodfox’s overturned conviction.
The Angola 3’s civil suit contends that their more than three decades of solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the suit has merit to proceed to trial. The outcome of this landmark civil case could be precedent-setting and eliminate long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
Developments can be followed via Angola3.org and angola3news.blogspot.com.
Letters can be sent to Albert Woodfox #72148, David Wade Correctional Center, N1 A3, 670 Bell Hill Road, Homer, LA 71040.
Pruden and Rubac are longtime members of Workers World Party and veteran activists in the struggle to free all political prisoners. Rubac is a leader of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement.