Hidden shame

Albert Woodfox is in jail in Angola. Innocent, just as two others who are imprisoned because of a murder they didn’t commit. Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, reports from Angola.

Anita Roddick | February 2003 issue
As America marches around the planet with the blessings of its allies it preaches about “infinite justice” and democracy. But it hides a dirty little secret back home. Its prisons contain more than a few political prisoners who dared to challenge the United States’ domestic status quo, and who have been locked away for good to keep them quiet. The billboards and Cajun fishing shacks swooshed by along the road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. I was on my way to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. There I would meet Albert Woodfox, a man who has been kept like an animal in solitary confinement in one of America’s worst prisons for the past 30 years.
I had learned of the Angola Three – of which Woodfox is one, along with Robert King Wilkerson and Herman Wallace – through a remarkable young American attorney named Scott Fleming. The story Fleming told me made my blood run cold. To my mind, Albert Woodfox and his friend Herman Wallace, who were framed for the murder of a white prison guard, are political prisoners, every bit the victims of a government that feels threatened by their intelligence and activism as any of the individuals in Amnesty International’s campaigns. In the early 1970s, when the Angola Three dared to stand up for basic human rights inside the prison, Angola had been declared ‘the bloodiest prison in America’. It was racially segregated, and ‘inmate guards’ were permitted to carry rifles. Inmate-on-inmate rape and murder were nearly daily occurrences. I for one, wanted to hear the story from the Angola Three themselves, so I headed to Louisiana to do just that.
There is something unnervingly perfect about the prison grounds. The complex of outbuildings, concrete cellblocks, and massive dormitories, is surrounded by 18,000 acres of lush cropland and perfectly manicured lawns. Even the miles of coils of razor wire gleamed as if it were hand-polished daily. Outside of the constant clanging of keys, a visitor to this place could almost forget they are in a prison. Unfortunately, all that is window dressing covering some ugly truths.
The moment Albert sat down, I knew: this man is a political animal. In the five hours we spent together, the depth and breadth of his knowledge about the world gobsmacked me, He talked about AIDS in Africa, the Palestinians, corporate globalization. He consistently showed an amazing antenna for stories of people who have been marginalized through war or injustice. His capacity for empathy was breathtaking. Albert described his cell for me: less than three metres square, it has a steel bed platform bolted to one wall with a thin mattress atop it. A small table is bolted to the opposite wall, and the third wall is occupied by a combination toilet and sink. He is not allowed to put anything on the walls, so he lines the perimeter of his wall with books along the floor. And he has two steel boxes under the bed in which he keeps all of his earthly belongings. He spends 23 hours a day there. Three days a week he is given an hour in the “yard,” not much more than a small cage with a dirt floor, where he can exercise alone. The other four days a week, he can use his hour for a shower or to walk along the cramped cellblock.
I cannot imagine the heat. The day I visited it was 37 degrees, and humid. The CCR cellblock has one fan for every five cells, and no air conditioning. But Albert did not complain. I asked him how he manages it, how he keeps from going crazy. “You do go a little crazy sometimes,” he said, “especially when you know you’re innocent. I have bouts of depression and hopelessness, of course. You live with the weight of being convicted for something you didn’t do. It’s a constant itch that you can never scratch.”
I asked Albert what he would do when he was released. His answer surprised me; he said he’d want to be alone. But, I thought, hadn’t he been desperately alone all these years? In fact, the solitary cell he lives in is on a cellblock with dozens more just like it. He can overhear conversations shouted between his fellow prisoners on the tier, and until very recently the constant noise of a television blaring from 6am to midnight on weekdays, 24 hours straight on weekends. He craves quiet, and the quiet conversation of his loved ones, far away from the shouts and cacophonous vulgarities of prison.
I know the question people will ask when they hear I’ve taken up the cause of the Angola Three: Why would I fly 12,000 miles around the world to a remote prison to take up this case? And I am reminded of a quote from Gandhi I read years ago: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.” Albert Woodfox is not weak, by any means. But he, like his compatriots Herman Wallace and Robert Wilkerson, is worth my efforts and the efforts of all who believe that you must fight injustice where you find it.
 

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Hidden shame

Albert Woodfox is in jail in Angola. Innocent, just as two others who are imprisoned because of a murder they didn’t commit. Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, reports from Angola.

Anita Roddick | February 2003 issue
As America marches around the planet with the blessings of its allies it preaches about “infinite justice” and democracy. But it hides a dirty little secret back home. Its prisons contain more than a few political prisoners who dared to challenge the United States’ domestic status quo, and who have been locked away for good to keep them quiet. The billboards and Cajun fishing shacks swooshed by along the road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. I was on my way to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. There I would meet Albert Woodfox, a man who has been kept like an animal in solitary confinement in one of America’s worst prisons for the past 30 years.
I had learned of the Angola Three – of which Woodfox is one, along with Robert King Wilkerson and Herman Wallace – through a remarkable young American attorney named Scott Fleming. The story Fleming told me made my blood run cold. To my mind, Albert Woodfox and his friend Herman Wallace, who were framed for the murder of a white prison guard, are political prisoners, every bit the victims of a government that feels threatened by their intelligence and activism as any of the individuals in Amnesty International’s campaigns. In the early 1970s, when the Angola Three dared to stand up for basic human rights inside the prison, Angola had been declared ‘the bloodiest prison in America’. It was racially segregated, and ‘inmate guards’ were permitted to carry rifles. Inmate-on-inmate rape and murder were nearly daily occurrences. I for one, wanted to hear the story from the Angola Three themselves, so I headed to Louisiana to do just that.
There is something unnervingly perfect about the prison grounds. The complex of outbuildings, concrete cellblocks, and massive dormitories, is surrounded by 18,000 acres of lush cropland and perfectly manicured lawns. Even the miles of coils of razor wire gleamed as if it were hand-polished daily. Outside of the constant clanging of keys, a visitor to this place could almost forget they are in a prison. Unfortunately, all that is window dressing covering some ugly truths.
The moment Albert sat down, I knew: this man is a political animal. In the five hours we spent together, the depth and breadth of his knowledge about the world gobsmacked me, He talked about AIDS in Africa, the Palestinians, corporate globalization. He consistently showed an amazing antenna for stories of people who have been marginalized through war or injustice. His capacity for empathy was breathtaking. Albert described his cell for me: less than three metres square, it has a steel bed platform bolted to one wall with a thin mattress atop it. A small table is bolted to the opposite wall, and the third wall is occupied by a combination toilet and sink. He is not allowed to put anything on the walls, so he lines the perimeter of his wall with books along the floor. And he has two steel boxes under the bed in which he keeps all of his earthly belongings. He spends 23 hours a day there. Three days a week he is given an hour in the “yard,” not much more than a small cage with a dirt floor, where he can exercise alone. The other four days a week, he can use his hour for a shower or to walk along the cramped cellblock.
I cannot imagine the heat. The day I visited it was 37 degrees, and humid. The CCR cellblock has one fan for every five cells, and no air conditioning. But Albert did not complain. I asked him how he manages it, how he keeps from going crazy. “You do go a little crazy sometimes,” he said, “especially when you know you’re innocent. I have bouts of depression and hopelessness, of course. You live with the weight of being convicted for something you didn’t do. It’s a constant itch that you can never scratch.”
I asked Albert what he would do when he was released. His answer surprised me; he said he’d want to be alone. But, I thought, hadn’t he been desperately alone all these years? In fact, the solitary cell he lives in is on a cellblock with dozens more just like it. He can overhear conversations shouted between his fellow prisoners on the tier, and until very recently the constant noise of a television blaring from 6am to midnight on weekdays, 24 hours straight on weekends. He craves quiet, and the quiet conversation of his loved ones, far away from the shouts and cacophonous vulgarities of prison.
I know the question people will ask when they hear I’ve taken up the cause of the Angola Three: Why would I fly 12,000 miles around the world to a remote prison to take up this case? And I am reminded of a quote from Gandhi I read years ago: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.” Albert Woodfox is not weak, by any means. But he, like his compatriots Herman Wallace and Robert Wilkerson, is worth my efforts and the efforts of all who believe that you must fight injustice where you find it.
 

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