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Their crime was to be black at the wrong time in the US

Gordon Roddick, The Big Issue In Scotland | 24.03.2010 01:35 | Anti-racism | History | Repression | World

As a new film charts the story of the Angola 3, wrongly imprisoned in America’s most notorious penitentiary for 37 years, the documentary’s producer and Big Issue co-founder Gordon Roddick tells of the campaign, started by his late wife Anita, to reverse the injustice

Robert King with Anita Roddick, Aug. 2002
Robert King with Anita Roddick, Aug. 2002

Anita was never the most predictable of people and this time I thought she had taken leave of her senses. She came to me five years ago to enlist my support in the case of the Angola 3. She insisted I join her in Louisiana to meet Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, who by then had each accumulated 34 years in solitary confinement. The third member of the three, Robert King, had won his liberty some four years earlier.

I was more than a little nervous at the prospect of meeting the two men and the whole prison-visiting experience did little to alleviate that.

Visitors have to go through a full body search and then a sniffer-dog routine, then the wait for the bus that drops off visitors within the huge 20,000-acre sprawl that is Angola, Louisiana’s biggest and most forbidding State penitentiary.

Herman and Albert were at that time being held within a closed cell restriction block, which houses the solitary cases on two tiers, with about 13 cells per tier. The cells are no more than nine by six feet; they are kept in there for 23 hours a day, only getting out for a shower or exercise in the yard, where again they are alone. Imagine for a minute being forced to live in your bathroom for the rest of your life.

They are constantly subjected to harassment of a petty and mean-minded nature: Herman was put on a charge and spent three weeks in the dungeon for having too many postage stamps in his cell. Both of them have been subjected to torture over a prolonged period of time.

The recommended time to be spent in Camp J, the punishment dungeon, is no more than three weeks, as it can send strong men crazy. Herman was once subjected to two years in Camp J. What kept him sane was the knowledge of his innocence and a steady flow of Angola 3 visitors and friends.

Through the cacophony of shouting and the clanging of the steel doors, I kept thinking – what kind of men am I on my way to meet? I had prepared a list of questions and topics for discussion and sat down in the little room they have for a non-contact visit. This is a very small room with six cubicles, prisoners are separated by a wire mesh through which you are visible. It is possible to talk without the aid of a telephone. Herman was brought in first, with both legs shackled and with hands tied to a waist belt. They released one hand so he could gesticulate and later on he was allowed to use that hand to join us in eating lunch.

My list of topics and questions was forgotten as we launched into conversation with the ease of friends. Anita had got to know both of them very well, through many visits and long monthly letters. The visit of four hours seemed to fly past very quickly. What struck me most was their quiet, perceptive intelligence and their concern with what was happening in the outside world.

Herman and Albert are very well read, there is no subject in terms of current affairs or legal issues in which they are not well versed. They have created a life for themselves that makes the most of their appalling situation.

Herman and Albert were adamant that while this was about the serial injustice they had suffered, it was, more importantly, about the thousands of black men and women still locked up following the wholesale racist climate of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It is their determination to lead this fight when they get out. They are outraged by the flagrant disregard for the American constitution, that says all citizens are entitled to be tried by a jury of their peers. On these grounds alone, there should be at least a judicial review of all those unsafe convictions.

The visit was peppered with laughter and good humour and I left Angola feeling uplifted by the few hours in their company, but shaken by the thoughts of what Herman and Albert have to deal with on a daily basis. I read most of the legal documents pertaining to their case; the more I read the more I was convinced of their innocence and the more I was determined to help Anita in her quest to set them free. These visits have since become an important part of my life and I have formed a deep and lasting friendship with Herman, Albert and Robert.

Congressman John Conyers, chairman of the Congressional Judiciary Committee, made a visit to see the two men. He was both moved and impressed with the positive attitude they displayed and he came back to Washington DC and gave a speech in support of them. He resolved not to rest until they have been set free. Five days after his visit, Herman and Albert were moved to a high security dormitory with 14 other prisoners and for a few months had respite from the confines of solitary. After about six months they were transferred back to solitary. The reason given was “budget cuts”. Their torture continues, with constant harassment focusing on accusations of minor infringements of petty rules.

We suspect there is a move to provoke them as our legal efforts are showing success. We must keep the spotlight on their cases. The best way of helping is by writing to them offering moral support. Also, write to the Attorney General, Buddy Caldwell, expressing disgust at their inhuman treatment, and to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. In the meantime, we await verdicts from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Herman’s case has moved to the federal courts with a new habeas corpus writ.

A documentary about the Angola 3, narrated by Samuel L Jackson, In The Land Of The Free… premieres at Human Rights Watch Film Festival, March 24, in New York.

It goes on UK release from March 26.

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Gordon Roddick, The Big Issue In Scotland
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