Two political prisoners: one past, one present, both lay dying. Two heroes of the Black liberation movement: one revered, one maligned, both endured decades of solitary confinement. Two men: one African, one African-American, both fought for the rights of African peoples. Two names: one internationally known, one unknown to many of his own countrymen. Both names echo the journey to overcome apartheid and segregation.
Although Nelson Mandela and Herman Wallace each fought for racial equity in their respective countries, South Africa and the United States, in the eyes of their governments these men will leave two very different legacies.
Who is Herman Wallace? The fact that you may be unfamiliar with him is neither a surprise nor an accident. For 41 years, Wallace has been confined to a 9ft by 6ft cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) for a crime he maintains he did not commit. In 1971 he and his comrades Ronald Ailsworth, Albert Woodfox and Gerald Bryant established a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party with a mission to desegregate the facility, improve race relations, end prison rape and advocate for humane treatment in one of the nation’s most brutal penitentiaries.
For Wallace’s efforts to bring humanity into an existence of indentured servitude, prison guards repeatedly punished Black Panther members and other peacemakers they deemed to be troublemakers. Amid the pervasive prison violence the Panthers sought to quell, guard Brent Miller was stabbed and killed during a melee, and Wallace and two BPP members were implicated without rigorous investigation.
Known as the Angola 3, these men fell victim to a caricature of justice, condemned to 23 hours of daily solitary confinement and indefinite imprisonment. Wallace, Woodfox and Robert Hillary King were convicted of Miller’s murder in 1972, despite a flawed case and discreditable testimonies from four State witnesses: one legally blind, one heavily medicated, and two who later recanted their stories.
In four decades of appeals, more recent court decisions prove that these men were victims of a discriminatory and unjust process. In 2001, King was released after plea bargaining to the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder and released on time served, although he was never formerly charged with murder. Moreover, a federal judge has ordered the state to release Woodfox on the basis of racial discrimination three times (two were successfully appealed, and the third sentence issued in February 2013 is pending appeal). Corruption was synonymous with the penitentiary, and the case of the Angola 3 was no exception.
Louisiana State Penitentiary was formerly an 18,000-acre plantation named Angola, after the mother country of African slaves who toiled and bled over the land. Purchased in 1880, Angola prison could be perceived as a relic of America’s painful past. It endures as a symbol of its present shame, bearing the distinction of being one of the largest, bloodiest and most profitable prisons in the United States. One-hundred-thirty-three years later, The Farm (as it’s also called) continues to produce cotton, beef, and a wide variety of sustaining crops that are sold on the open market by Prison Enterprises. Every able-bodied prisoner is forced to work a minimum of 40 hours per week receiving wages between two to 20 cents an hour.
No longer forced to work in Angola’s fields or confined by his 54 square foot cell, Herman Wallace must fight once again—for the right to die with dignity. Stricken with liver cancer, Wallace lays in an Angolan prison hospital deteriorating, having lost nearly 55lbs in four months. On July 6, 2013 his lawyer Nick Trenticosta appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC program to discuss Wallace’s faulty conviction and plea for compassionate release. Enduring what Trenticosta believes to be intentional maltreatment, Herman Wallace, once confined in a solitary cell, is now confined to a hospital bed.
In a recent trip to South Africa, President Obama stood in Nelson Mandela’s former cell on Robben Island where he was held for 18 years. Appearing solemn and reflective, the American president told South African press that he was “deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield.” But what if he were to stand in Wallace’s cell?
To do so could be a public acknowledgement of American political prisoners’ existence, a first. The United States government has never acknowledged its prisoners of conscience, despite its admission of targeting civil rights and anti-war groups and decades of pressure from human rights organizations demanding their release. In a July 1978 interview with French newspaper Le Matin de Paris, six years after Wallace’s confinement began, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young ignited a controversy that almost led to his impeachment by stating, “We still have hundreds of people that I would categorize as political prisoners in our prisons.”
The alleged hundreds of political prisoners who remain living are of advancing age, and the prison systems that house them largely provide inadequate care. Managing ailments such as arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression could worsen due to neglect (as was the case with Wallace). As the list of ailing prisoners grows longer, it is certain that the cries for their commutation grow louder.
Yet despite his failing health, Wallace’s lawyer doubts he will leave the Farm alive: “I don’t think so, and part of the reason is the state of Louisiana in the past six years has spent $6 million dollars in lawyer fees to keep a 71-year-old man in solitary confinement,” Trenticosta told Harris-Perry. With Louisiana state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell actively obstructing his release, it seems pro-prison Governor Bobby Jindal will prove to be as obstinate. From January 2008 to May 2012, Jindal has only signed 36 of 450 pardon recommendations brought before him. Furthermore, after Black Panther and former political prisoner Assata Shakur was named to the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list just months ago, it seems unlikely that President Obama would usurp state power to issue Herman Wallace a pardon.
While Nelson Mandela will be buried a national hero, Herman Wallace will likely die a statistic if the state of Louisiana ignores his plea. Seventy-eight percent of Louisiana State Penitentiary inmates are African-American, and 88% of the population will die while incarcerated there.
Two political prisoners, two continents and two governments: one will die having triumphed over racial injustice and one will die a victim of it.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her consultancy, HUE, provides sustainable development solutions to social justice problems impacting the African diaspora. Contact her via Twitter: @MsJamilaAisha and at www.hueglobal.com.