Forty years ago today, three black men, Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were accused of a murder they did not commit. They were thrown into solitary confinement. Twenty-nine years later, King was released and his initial conviction overturned, but Wallace and Woodfox remain in punitive isolation, despite a 2006 recommendation from the State Judicial Commissioner to overturn Wallace’s conviction, and a 2008 court decision overturning Woodfox’s conviction (later reversed by the 5th Appellate Court). The case against them is riddled with inconsistencies and evidence of bribery and corruption, detailed by Amnesty International and other organizations.
Together, King, Wallace and Woodfox are known as the Angola 3. Their struggle for justice is not set in a repressive dictatorship on the other side of the world. It is not a horror story from the U.S. War on Terror. It is happening in our own backyard, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola Prison.
Angola Prison is named after the slave plantation upon which it was built, which in turn was named after the Portuguese colony where the first slaves on this land were transported. Even today, the forced labor of black prisoners working in the cotton fields of Angola Prison conjures up images of slavery.
Every year, the warden at Angola Prison, Burl Cain, organizes a popular prison rodeo with events such as “convict poker,” “guts and glory,” and “pinball.” An evangelical Christian, Cain has been sued by prisoners represented by the ACLU for violation of their right to religious freedom.
Cain has all but admitted that his motivation for isolating the Angola 3 is political . When asked by a New Orleans schoolteacher whether Wallace and Woodfox were political prisoners, Cain responded, “Well, yes. Well no, I don't like the word political.”
Whatever you make of the word political, it’s difficult to draw a line between criminal offenders and political prisoners in a penal system that has failed to grapple with the legacy of slavery.
When slavery was abolished in 1865, the 13th Amendment made a notable exception: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (emphasis added).
Prison scholars such as Angela Davis and Joy James have argued that, by leaving open the possibility of treating convicted criminals as slaves, the Thirteenth Amendment did not abolish slavery. Instead, it relocated and reinscribed slavery within the prison system, through the black codes, the convict lease system, Jim Crow, and other sites of injustice.
What does it mean to claim that slavery has never been completely abolished in this country? It does not mean that plantation slavery continues in its antebellum form – although prison farms such as Angola and Parchman do bear an uncanny resemblance to slave plantations. Nor does it mean that prisoners are forced to labor without pay – although this does happen in Texas and Georgia, and the wages paid to prisoners in other states are close to nothing.
The legacy of slavery runs deeper than this, and it is not restricted to the South, nor even to African American prisoners, although they bear the brunt of our system of mass incarceration and punitive isolation.
Today, slavery persists in the social death of prisoners who are locked away for years, decades, or even multiple lifetimes, in a situation that undermines their capacity to sustain or rebuild a meaningful sense of life in a world shared with others.
In his book, Slavery and Social Death , Orlando Patterson argued that the defining feature of slavery is not forced labor, nor even the status of being owned as property, but rather the extreme dishonor and alienation of being excluded from networks of mutually-supportive social relations.
To be socially dead is to be deprived of the right to kin: to relationships with others who might come to one’s aid in time of need, and to support one’s life as an individual.
These kinship relations are replaced by a single “fictive” relationship to the master. Even if this master did not abuse power through physical violence, this single legitimate relationship is not enough to support the social life of the slave. It takes a network of interconnected obligations, both in the present and extending into the past and future, to create and sustain social personhood.
To be violently, permanently separated from one’s kin is to be blocked from forming a meaningful relation to the heritage of the past and the legacy of the future beyond a person’s finite, individuated being. Of course, slaves did manage to form strong ties with one another, but these relationships were formed and sustained precisely in resistance, and even in opposition, to structures that deliberately and systematically sought to foreclose them.
Social death is the best name I know to describe the situation of the Angola 3, and of the tens of thousands of prisoners currently held in solitary confinement across the U.S.
Since 1972, apart from a brief period in a shared dormitory in 2008, Wallace and Woodfox have spent 23 hours a day, every day, in a 6’ x 9’ cell with constant artificial light, blaring TV, and extremely limited non-contact visits from a short list of family and friends.
The prisoner in solitary confinement is systematically excluded from the emotional, cognitive, and even ontological support of others. He is isolated in his cell, with no one to see or to look back at him, no one to touch or to receive his touch. His phone calls, letters, and reading materials are monitored and controlled by prison officials. Many prisoners are transferred to institutions located hundreds of miles away from family and loved ones. Others discourage visitors in order to protect them from the strip searches and other humiliating procedures that are typically imposed on them.
And yet, the prisoner in punitive isolation is not for that reason “solitary.” Precisely by virtue of his forced isolation, the prisoner’s situation is mediated by countless “fictive” relations: the guards who keep him, feed him and monitor his activities; the wardens who oversee the guards; the prison review board that continues his isolation in 90 day intervals; the lawyers who prosecuted or defended him; the judge and/or jury who sentenced him; and the public who tolerates his ongoing isolation, even (or especially) if we are not even aware of it.
In an interview for The Guardian, Robert King describes the strategies he developed to resist the social death of isolation at Angola Prison. He collected sugar packets and peanuts, and used them to make pralines in his cell. He made a chess board with toilet paper and toothpaste, and called out moves to prisoners in other cells. These activities helped King to maintain a sense of life and kinship with others.
And yet, the experience has marked him forever:
“When I walked out of Angola, I didn't realise how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances – a result of living in such a small space. Emotionally, too, I've found it hard to move on. I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there.”
Herman Wallace has resisted social death at Angola through a nine-year collaboration with artist Jackie Sumell to imagine and design his dream home. Their collaboration is the subject of a feature-length documentary film, called Herman’s House, which premiered on April 14.
Woodfox had this to say about his brief stint in a shared dormitory in 2008:
“The thing I noticed most about being with Herman is the laughing, the talking, the bumping up against one another, being able to "check" one another; we've been denied this for so long. And every once in a while he'll put his arm around me or I'll put my arm around him. It's those kind of things that make you human. And we're truly enjoying that.”
It is impossible to imagine what it is like to be isolated for forty years, or even for forty days. And yet, both the attempt to imagine solitary confinement, and the impossibility of knowing what it is like without having undergone it, play an important role in resisting the social death of solitary confinement from the position of an outsider.
On one hand, the prisoner in solitary confinement is an unperceived and unimaginable other; at the same time, he is our other, and a society that practices long-term, wide-scale solitary confinement cannot help but be shaped by our (non)relation to those who have been “disappeared,” but who remain among us, somewhere between life and death.