Here's what the Angola 3 dreamt up in solitary

Image courtesy Jackie Sumell

Albert Woodfox, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Angola 3, was recently freed after 43 years incarcerated. Much of this sentence was served in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola.

Alongside Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King, Woodfox was sentenced to life in solitary confinement for the 1972 murder of prison guard Brent Miller, although there is limited evidence linking him to the murder. Robert Hillary King was released in 2001 and Herman Wallace was released in 2013, three days before he passed away from cancer.

Woodfox pleaded no contest to lesser charges and was consequently released on February 19, 2016. In essence, he was released because of his age, health issues, and the lack of direct evidence connecting him to the murder of Brent Miller.

When he was released from prison, Woodfox was not just welcomed home by his family by a circle of activists who had worked for his release. Over the course of his confinement, Woodfox, the other members of the Angola 3, and supporters worldwide created art, writing, and used other forms of activism to reshape the reputation of the Black Panther Party and the Angola 3.

The narrative put forth by these projects is one of innocence, not simply in the case of the Brent Miller murder, but in their organizing. This work fundamentally transformed how millions understood the Black Panther Party, the humanity of the Angola 3, and the role of solitary confinement in the criminal justice system. Activism in support of the Angola 3 put a face to national issues about incarceration and the humanity of its members at a time when such discussion was even less welcome in the public discourse.

By foregrounding the Angola 3 as both an example of an oppressive criminal justice system and as writers, artists and activists in their own right, this activism humanized rather than victimized the members of the Angola 3. Among other things, this body of art explored comparisons between the unjust incarceration of African American men and slavery. The Angola prison itself was a plantation until 1901, nicknamed after the country of origin of most of the slaves.

Through such comparisons to slavery, activists reframed the narrative about the Angola 3 and the Black Panthers in a way that incriminated prison authorities and absolved the Angola 3. The House That Herman Built, a collaboration between New Orleans based artist Jackie Sumell and Angola 3 member Herman Wallace, is an example of this body of work.

Sumell asked Wallace “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-cell for over thirty years dream of?” What followed was a correspondence, primarily conducted via letters, in which Wallace designed his dream house. In a letter to Sumell, Wallace wrote that “the house that you and I are constructing is not just a house from some deep dark hole in my psyche—it’s a house I believe that is born out of the years of oppression I’ve endured mixed with and from a much younger and brighter generation.”

This art and its impact was not limited to the United States. In 2014 Amnesty International published a French language graphic novel entitled Panthers in the Hole by Bruno Cenou and David Cenou. Like much of the other art and activism mentioned here, Panthers in the Hole emphasizes that the Angola 3 and the Black Panther Party fought violence, illiteracy and poor living conditions. Meanwhile, the newest piece of artwork depicting Albert Woodfox is a mural on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans painted by Brandon “Bmike” Odums, connected to Amnesty International’s Art for Amnesty program. The mural emphasizes the size of Woodfox’s prison cell and the consequent unfairness of solitary confinement.

Indeed, after his release, Robert Hillary King leveraged artwork to support activism to end the confinement of Woodfox and Wallace. While incarcerated, Robert Hillary King wrote his autobiography From the Bottom of the Heap. After his release, King used his autobiography to tell the story of his early life in New Orleans, his early infatuation with the Black Panther Party, and the cruelties of solitary confinement. King used the success of his book to go on speaking tours and involve himself in other activism.

This work has shaped our contemporary debates over the role of racism in the criminal justice system, making the injustice faced by the Angola 3 has become common knowledge. Representative John Conyers has introduced bills into the U.S. House barring the use of solitary confinement, citing the injustice faced by the Angola 3. Conyers also commemorated the life of Herman Wallace on the house floor after he passed away, which would have been unimaginable in the early years of the Angola 3’s incarceration.

Congressman Conyers, alongside Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Robert Scott, and Cedric Richmond asked the attorney general’s office to investigate the use of solitary confinement in the state of Louisiana. In 2013 The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez called to end Albert Woodfox’s time in solitary confinement on an international stage.

The Angola 3 themselves filed a civil suit calling for the banning of long term solitary confinement. Their own statements bear witness to the suffering that gives their suit force. When released from prison in February Woodfox said “I want to thank my brother Michel for sticking with me all these years, and Robert King, who wrongly spent nearly 30 years in solitary.”

“I could not have survived without their courageous support,” he said, before adding, “along with the support of my dear friend Herman Wallace, who passed away in 2013.”