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herman_wallace.jpgBy James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, Mother Jones

For the better part of
four decades, Victory Wallace, 70, has made a monthly trip from New
Orleans to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to visit her
brother Herman (photo right), who just turned 68. The 140-mile journey has shades of Heart of Darkness,
following the course of the Mississippi River to a remote prison colony
from which most inmates never return. At the dark heart of this former
slave plantation, Herman Wallace has lived most of the past 37 years in
solitary confinement, imprisoned alone for 23 hours a day in a
6-by-9-foot cell.

When Herman was moved in the spring of 2009 from Angola to Hunt
Correctional Center near Baton Rouge, Vickie's trip got a bit shorter.
But what she found when she arrived on her most recent visit was even
worse than usual. Because of a disciplinary infraction, Herman had been
placed in "extended administrative lockdown." That meant Vickie was
denied a contact visit, and was permitted to see her brother only
through a glass partition as they spoke over a telephone. His hands
were shackled to the table. (Other recent visitors reported that the
shackles made it hard for him to hold the phone to his ear, while his
hearing loss made communication over the telephone difficult.) Herman
complained to Vickie that he was cold, and she thought that he had lost
weight. His spirits, she said, were not the best.

For
years, Herman Wallace's hopes have ridden on two cases that are inching
their way through the courts -- one challenging his conviction, the other
challenging his long-term solitary confinement. Now, after a decade of
starts and stops, obstacles and delays, both cases are advancing toward
conclusions that will determine how he spends what's left of his life.

With the exception of a few brief intervals, Wallace has been living
in lockdown since 1972, when he was accused of murdering a young Angola
prison guard. Along with another inmate named Albert Woodfox, he was
tried, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole. Wallace,
Woodfox, and a third longtime prisoner called Robert King -- who are known
as the Angola 3 -- are also plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit alleging that
their unparalleled time in solitary violates the constitutional ban on
cruel and unusual punishment. The case -- which
could potentially affect the estimated 25,000 American prisoners living
in long-term lockdown -- is expected to come to trial in the US District
Court in Baton Rouge in early 2010.

Since 1990, Wallace has also been appealing his criminal conviction
in the Louisiana state courts. He believes that he was targeted for the
guard's murder because of his involvement in Angola's chapter of the
Black Panther Party, which had been organizing against conditions in
what was then known as "the bloodiest prison in the South." Wallace
contends that the prosecution's witnesses -- all of them fellow Angola
prisoners -- were coached, bribed, coerced, or threatened into giving
false testimony against him by prison employees bent on revenge. "If
they could have hung and burned the guys involved they would have," one
inmate witness later told Wallace's lawyers. "But there was too much
light on the situation." Documents and testimony that have surfaced
since the trial show that prosecutors knew a good part of their case
was unreliable or manufactured. The state's own judicial commissioner,
assigned to study the case in 2006, recommended that Wallace's
conviction be overturned. Even the prison guard's widow has publicly
stated that she now doubts
the guilt of the two men convicted of her husband's murder, and still
wants to see his killers brought to justice. But the Louisiana courts,
one after another, have rejected his appeal, providing no reasons for
their decisions.

Now, Wallace has turned to the federal courts. On December 4, he
filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus -- basically, a plea for a
reversal of his wrongful conviction. It is his last chance to win a new
trial, and possibly his freedom. On his side are a team of skilled
pro-bono attorneys who have assembled a brief full of evidence that was
hidden or suppressed 35 years ago during his original trial. Against
him is an increasingly conservative federal court system, along with
two of the most powerful figures in Louisiana criminal justice:
Angola's famous warden, Burl Cain, and the state's ambitious attorney
general, James "Buddy" Caldwell, both of whom appear determined to
fight to the bitter end to ensure that Herman Wallace never again sees
the light of day.

The incident that condemned Herman Wallace to a life in lockdown
took place at a particularly explosive time in Angola's notoriously
violent history. In the early 1970s, Louisiana's 5,000-man penitentiary
was the nation's largest prison; it was also notorious for its high
rates of murder, rape, and assault. The former slave plantation's
18,000 acres were farmed by prisoners working up to 96 hours a week,
overseen by armed inmate guards, known as "trusties." The trusties also
oversaw gambling, drug-dealing, and a monstrous system of sexual
slavery -- sanctioned by some of the all-white corrections officers, who
were referred to by staff and inmates alike as "freemen."

"Angola in those days was life and death, buying and selling people,
and the officers knew it was happening," Howard Baker, a prisoner who
testified at Wallace's trial, stated in a subsequent affidavit. "There
was a goon squad of guards. If they came after you, you could get
anything from a beating to being killed, and they'd call it being
killed by trying to escape." In addition, Baker said, "Physical
conditions were about as bad as you can get: hot, dirty, overcrowded.
Weapons were everywhere. You could shake down for weapons one night and
have just as many the next. I saw as many as four stabbings a week,
week after week."

It was also a time of simmering tensions between longtime
employees -- many of whom had grown up in the staff community on the
prison's grounds -- and Angola's new "reformist" leadership. A few years
earlier, Warden C. Murray Henderson and Deputy Warden Lloyd Hoyle had
been brought in from out of state to "clean up Angola." As Wallace's
habeas petition states:

Their arrival at Angola disrupted [the Louisiana State
Penitentiary's] existing leadership, most of whom had worked their way
up the ranks at Angola. Associate Warden Hayden Dees and the old-guard
leadership notably resisted their reform efforts, particularly those
aimed at ending racial segregation and those directed at according
inmates in extended lockdown, known as CCR (closed cell restriction),
with due process. Associate Warden Dees in particular believed that "a
certain type of militant or revolutionary inmate, maybe even a
communist type," should remain under lockdown conditions at all times;
he wanted nothing to do with documenting decisions about who went into
lockdown and for how long in compliance with federal court requirements.

Among the "militant" inmates were Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox,
both serving time for armed robbery. After they arrived at Angola they
became active members of the prison's chapter of the Black Panther
Party. This cadre of inmates organized petitions and hunger strikes to
protest the horrendous conditions at the prison, and helped new
inmates, known as "fresh fish," protect themselves from sexual assault
and enslavement. For their efforts, some of the Panthers were placed in
solitary confinement to suppress what was viewed as a threat to prison
authority.

On April 17, 1972, 23-year-old guard Brent Miller was found in front
of an inmate dormitory, stabbed 32 times. Investigators initially had
no suspects, but they soon zeroed in on the activists. In a written description
[PDF] of his case, Wallace stated that Hayden Dees, the associate
warden, "went well out of his way to tie us in with the death for his
own political gain. He claimed that Henderson and Hoyle were
responsible for Miller's death by releasing the 'militants' (he linked
me and Woodfox to those released)."

Statements from Henderson and Hoyle confirm that some of the guards
considered them complicit in the killing. Three days later, Lloyd
Hoyle, the deputy warden, was called from home to a meeting of staff
members, who accused him of turning loose Miller's murderers. Hoyle was
assaulted and pushed through a plate glass door, and nearly bled to
death before one of the guards decided to drive him to the hospital. 

Wallace was thrown into lockdown the day of Brent Miller's murder.
Within a few days, officials had obtained the evidence they needed to
charge Wallace and three other so-called "militants" -- Woodfox, Chester
Jackson, and Gilbert Montegut -- with the crime. They were indicted by an
all-white, all-male grand jury in nearby St. Francisville, Louisiana,
which was home to many prison staff, their families, and friends.

A river town near the Mississippi border, St. Francisville proudly
advertises itself as plantation country. It was also Klan country, and
until the civil rights movement and the FBI arrived in the early 1960s,
no African American had registered to vote in the parish in more than
60 years. The defendants in the Miller case contested the indictment on
the grounds that women and blacks had been systematically excluded from
the jury pool. They were subsequently re-indicted by another grand
jury, chosen through "the same or substantially the same grand jury
selection procedures," according to Wallace's current brief.

Albert Woodfox was convicted of Miller's murder in a separate trial
in 1973. After being granted a change of venue, the three remaining
defendants--Wallace, Jackson, and Montegut--stood trial in East Baton
Rouge in January 1974--before yet another all-white, all-male jury.

The prosecutors in the case presented no physical evidence to tie the
three men to the crime. Although bloody fingerprints had been found
near the guard's body, they matched none of the defendants'. According
to evidence presented in Wallace's petition, no effort was made to
match them to any of the 5,000 other inmate prints on file. A bloody
knife, likewise, could not be connected to any of the men on trial. The
evidence against them consisted entirely of testimony by other Angola
prisoners obtained under highly dubious circumstances.

The prosecution's star witness was Hezekiah Brown, whose eyewitness
testimony was indispensible to its case. An aging prisoner serving a
life sentence for aggravated rape, Brown said that he had been in the
dormitory on the morning of Brent Miller's death, and had seen the
defendants stab the guard repeatedly. Former Angola prisoners have said
in interviews that Brown was a notorious snitch. But it would be nearly
25 years before proof emerged showing just what happened behind the scenes to secure his testimony.

In 1998, lawyers for Wallace's co-defendant, Albert Woodfox,
succeeded in obtaining previously suppressed witness statements, taped
interviews, and other documents from the murder investigation carried
out by prison officials, the county sheriff's office, and local
prosecutors. These materials, supplemented by testimony by Warden
Henderson and others, show that Hezekiah Brown was encouraged, if not
coerced, to identify the prisoners already chosen as suspects.
Henderson admitted he promised to seek a pardon for the lifer if Brown
helped them "crack the case." A series of letters to judges, pardon
board members, and the secretary of corrections shows that Warden
Henderson kept his word, though it would be more than 10 years before
Brown's pardon came through. In the meantime, Brown benefited from an
array of special favors, including reassignment to a private room at
the low-security "dog pen" where the prison's bloodhounds were trained
and a carton of cigarettes, the crucial prison currency, every week.

Another inmate witness, Joseph Richey, placed Wallace and the others
at the scene of the crime; he was later found to be a schizophrenic who
was heavily medicated with Thorazine. After the trial, Richey was
transferred to a plum job at the governor's mansion and given weekend
furloughs (during which he robbed several banks). Previously suppressed
documents, obtained through the discovery process by Albert Woodfox's
lawyers in 1998, show that Angola officials didn't believe Richey had
seen anything. The state possessed these documents at the time of
Wallace's trial, and presented his possibly perjured testimony
nonetheless.

Howard Baker, yet another prisoner who testified at Wallace's trial,
has since sworn an affidavit completely recanting his testimony. Baker
had initially been a suspect in Miller's murder, and may have been
seeking to protect himself. In the affidavit, Baker states:

So I looked at the situation like this, I got 60 something years,
and I got a chance to help myself - so I was going to do something to
help me get out of this cesspool....So, I gave a statement on 10/16/72,
to Warden Dees, which was a lie. And my testimony based on that
statement was a lie. I really thought this would help me because Dees
told me my statement would get my sentence commuted....It was all over
the penitentiary that they [Wallace and Woodfox] were the ones that
administration thought was involved. So I gave a statement.

The state played its ace-in-the-hole in the middle of the trial,
when one of the four co-defendants walked in after a recess and sat
down at the prosecution's table. Chester Jackson had turned state's
witness, and would now testify against the others. The defense
attorney, Charles Garretson, later testified that he "was in a complete
state of shock...it took everything I could glean together to maintain
professionalism and sanity and intelligence to go forward after this
lunch break." The court gave him less than 30 minutes to prepare to
cross-examine his own former client. Although he denied it on the
stand, Jackson had clearly cut a deal; shortly after the trial, he
would plead guilty to manslaughter. Garretson later said that he felt
he was "the only one in the courthouse that didn't know this. I felt
that -- I know all the deputies knew it. I felt the judge knew it."

These allegations of widespread and deliberate suppression of
evidence form the core of Herman Wallace's current appeal. His habeas
petition states, "Mr. Wallace's defense strategy was to show that the
State's inmate witnesses must be either mistaken or lying. Although the
State possessed precisely the information Mr. Wallace's defense counsel
sought -- material which would show that the State's witnesses lacked
credibility and the State's prosecution lacked integrity -- the State
disclosed none of it." This withholding of evidence, Wallace says,
violated his constitutional right to due process.

Wallace's remaining co-defendant, Gilbert Montegut, had a prison
guard to confirm his alibi, and was acquitted. Herman Wallace was
convicted of the murder. His conviction happened to fall during a brief
period when the Supreme Court had effectively struck down capital
punishment -- had it come at any other time, Wallace would likely have
received a death sentence. Instead, he got life without parole and was
placed in lockdown, along with Woodfox. The reason given for their
confinement in solitary was the nature of the crime -- the murder of a
guard, which rendered them a threat to others in the prison community.
Both Wallace and Woodfox remain there, ostensibly on the same grounds,
35 years later.

If the story of Herman Wallace's trial reads like a study in Southern
justice, its sequel shows what has changed in Louisiana in the
intervening decades -- and what has remained the same. Wallace and Woodfox
now have a small legion of active supporters and an impressive team of
lawyers renowned for their death penalty appeals, including Nick
Trenticosta, director of the Center for Equal Justice, in New Orleans,
and George Kendall at the pro bono unit of Squire Sanders & Dempsey
in New York. But even good lawyers can't vitiate the Louisiana justice
system's apparent determination to keep Wallace and Woodfox locked up
and locked down, for reasons that appear to go far beyond the facts of
the 1972 murder of Brent Miller.
 
The two men believe that they were originally targeted for the murder
because their political beliefs and activism represented a threat to
the absolute power of prison authorities. Statements from Angola's
current warden, Burl Cain, suggest they are being kept permanently in
solitary for much the same reason. Cain has been widely celebrated
for "transforming" Angola, largely through the institution of Christian
"moral rehabilitation," which he sees as the only path to redemption
for the sinners in his charge. There is no room, either in Cain's
worldview or on his prison plantation, for people who question
authority like Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have.
 
In a 2008 deposition, Cain declared, "The prison operates with one
authentic authoritarian figure, the warden and the rule book." He also
said that Woodfox's lack of deference made him a dangerous man: "The
thing about him is that he wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize.
He wants to be defiant. He wants to show to others that he is powerful
and strong."
 
Woodfox's lawyers have pointed out that he had no record of violence
and few disciplinary infractions in the past 20 years. They documented
a similar record for Wallace in a 2006 deposition
[PDF]: "Mr. Wallace's most recent disciplinary report for institutional
violence occurred some 22 years ago," it said, and in recent years,
Wallace's handful of infractions included "possessing handmade earrings
and a poem, 'A Defying Voice'"; "wearing a handmade necklace with a
black fist"; and "possessing the publication, It's About Time, a Black
Panther publication 16 containing articles/photos on the Angola three,
characterized as, quote, 'racist literature' by security personnel."
His most recent disciplinary report "was December 2005, when he was
found in the possession of excess number of postage stamps, for which
he received thirty days cell confinement."
 
But Cain believes "It's not a matter of write-ups. It's a matter of
attitude and what you are." And to Cain, what Woodfox and Wallace are
and will always be is Black Panthers. Associate Warden Hayden Dees
previously said that "a certain type of militant or revolutionary
inmate, maybe even a communist type" was dangerous enough to be kept in
permanent lockdown. In 2008, Cain said that Woodfox belongs in solitary
because "I still know that he is still trying to practice Black
Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison
because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all
kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks
chasing after them."
 
Wallace says
that Cain at least once offered to release the two men into the general
population if they renounced their political views and accepted Jesus
Christ as their savior. He refused. Cain declared that "Albert Woodfox
and Herman Wallace is locked in time with that Black Panther
revolutionary actions they were doing way back when...And that's still
their motive and that's still their goal. And from that, there's been
no rehabilitation."
 
Louisiana's attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, also appears determined
to keep the two men in prison at all costs -- a vow that he will likely
try to uphold even if Wallace's case succeeds in federal court.
Caldwell's resolve has already been tested in the case of Woodfox: When
a federal judge overturned Woodfox's conviction in 2008 and ordered him
released on bail, the attorney general sprang into action -- filing an
emergency motion to keep him behind bars, sending fearmongering emails
to the community where Woodfox was planning to stay with his niece, and
telling the press that he was "the most dangerous person on the
planet." Persuaded by Caldwell's plea and Cain's testimony about his
dangerous nature, the federal appeals court granted the motion and
denied Woodfox bail; he remains in lockdown, awaiting his appeal. In a
recent letter, Wallace wrote of Caldwell, "Like most prosecutors, he
will never admit he made a mistake, he's fighting to keep us
imprisoned. The reputation of the Louisiana justice system is at stake
here. If we gain our freedom it would expose the corruption that is
rampant throughout the system."
 
The fate of both Wallace and Woodfox ultimately lies in the hands of
the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans -- and here,
they are worse off than they might have been 40 years ago. In the 1950s
and 1960s, a small group of Fifth Circuit judges -- mostly Southern-bred
moderate Republicans -- won a reputation
for advancing civil rights and especially school desegregation. But
today the Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Texas, and
Mississippi, is among the most ideologically conservative of the
federal appeals courts. It is notable for its overburdened docket and
for its hostility to appeals from defendants in capital cases,
including claims based on faulty prosecution and suppressed evidence.
In particular, the Fifth Circuit has kept the gurneys rolling in Texas'
busy execution chamber. The court has even been reprimanded by the US
Supreme Court, itself no friend to death row inmates: In June 2004,
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote
that in handing down death penalty rulings, the Fifth Circuit was doing
no more than "paying lip service to principles" of appellate law.

It will almost certainly be years before Herman Wallace's criminal
appeal is finally resolved. While their case is exceptional, Wallace,
now 68, and Woodfox, 62, are in certain respects emblematic of an
entire generation of prisoners who came of age in a time of lengthening
sentences and tightening parole restrictions--spared execution to live
out their lives in prison, sometimes in complete isolation. "I'm in
this cell or in the hall 24/7, 23 hours in the cell, one hour on the
hall,'' he wrote in a letter earlier this year. "Either way you look at
it I am locked up with no contact with any others. I use stacks of
books for exercise and thereafter I am either writing or reading.''
Wallace keeps himself together by concentrating on his case. "I have no
time for foolishness," his letter continues. "I am in a struggle
against the state of Louisiana on two strategic fronts, and hear me
when I tell you they are not fighting fair."
 
Perhaps the ultimate irony of Woodfox and Wallace's predicament is that
while their political beliefs may have doomed them to a life in
lockdown, these same beliefs have also given them the strength to
endure it. In his New Yorker piece on solitary confinement as torture,
Atul Gawande describes how frequently prisoners have mentally and
physically disintegrated in such conditions. What is remarkable about
Wallace and Woodfox is how lucid and resolute they remain. They stay in
close touch with their supporters. They know every detail of their
cases, and when they find the opportunity, they provide counsel to
other prisoners. They take pride in refusing to submit to the dictates
of the state or of the warden, to accept anyone else's rules or anyone
else's god. It's what keeps them sane, and perhaps what keeps them
alive.
 
Herman Wallace writes dozens of letters each week. He composes poems
and makes drawings and elaborate paper flowers. For the past five
years, he has also been collaborating on a project with Jackie Sumell,
a young artist who first contacted him in 2002 with the question "What
kind of a house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot
cell for over 30 years dream of?" Together they designed a home,
which Sumell has translated into architectural plans, models, a
traveling exhibit, and a book of drawings and letters called The House
That Herman Built. Wallace describes a house with "a swimming pool with
a light green bottom and a large Panther in the center. I want flower
gardens surrounding the house enclosed. A garage for two cars. A large
tree in the backyard under which will be my patio.''
 
"To build this house is to build my soul," Wallace wrote in a 2006
letter to Sumell. He continued, "I'm often asked what did I come to
prison for; and now that I think about it Jackie, it doesn't matter. It
doesn't matter what I came here for, what matters now is what I leave
with. And I can assure you, however I leave, I won't leave nothing
behind."
 
Among the activists who took up the cause of the Angola 3 were the late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop (and a former Mother Jones board member), and her husband, Gordon. The Roddick's family charity, the Roddick Foundation, contributed funding for this story.

James Ridgeway is a senior correspondent at
Mother Jones, where this story first appeared. For more of his stories, click here.

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