Herman Wallace: Unrepentant Political Prisoner and Fighter for Justice

October 5, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3

Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3.

Herman Wallace was a courageous fighter for justice, a political prisoner who this system locked up in conditions of torture, in solitary confinement, for 41 years.

On Tuesday, October 1, Herman Wallace was finally freed after a federal judge ruled that his original indictment in the killing of a prison guard had been unconstitutional. Three days later, on Friday morning, October 4, Herman Wallace died of cancer in New Orleans. He was 71.

The story of what the U.S. government did to him is an outrage and an indictment of this whole system and its so-called "system of justice." The life of Herman Wallace is one of inspiration.

The Outrageous Justice of a Heartless System

Herman Wallace spent 41 years in prison, since 1971, most of it at the infamous Angola prison farm, which, fittingly, was a former slave plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River.

In a radio interview earlier this year, Wallace described what it was like to be caged in a 6 foot by 9 foot cell: "Where we stay, we're usually in the cell for 23 hours, and an hour out. I'm not 'out.' I may come out of the hole here, but I'm still locked up on that unit. I'm locked up. I can't get around that. Anywhere I go, I have to be in chains. Chains have become a part of my existence. And that's one of the things that people have to fully understand. But understanding it is one thing, but experiencing it is quite another."

These conditions of solitary confinement are internationally recognized as a crime against humanity. Yet it is these conditions that are routinely meted out as punishment in this country to tens of thousands of prisoners throughout the U.S. in "supermax" or "restrictive segregation" units.

In 1974, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, also a prisoner in Angola, were unjustly and wrongly convicted in the stabbing death of a prison guard. After the guard was killed, Wallace and Woodfox were placed in solitary confinement, along with Robert King. Prison officials claimed King was involved in the guard's death although he was never charged with it. Together, Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King are the Angola 3.

The three spent over one hundred years in solitary for a crime they did not commit. All three stood strong in the face of sadistic and vengeful persecution by prison and judicial authorities.

Robert King was released from prison, after 29 years in solitary, when a judge overturned his original conviction. Albert Woodfox is still in prison. His conviction for involvement in the guard's death has been overturned three times, but each time the state of Louisiana has kept him in prison, in the torment of solitary.

The persecution and heartless torment, year after year, of the Angola 3 is a towering crime of this system that must never be forgotten, must never be forgiven. It is a concentration of the cold reality of this capitalist-imperialist system, and the "freedom and democracy" proclaimed by its defenders.

The Angola 3 were singled out for punishment for blatantly political reasons. The three were part of a generation of youth who became radicalized in their millions during the great upheavals of the 1960s. While in prison, these three youths from the ghettoes of New Orleans became revolutionaries associated with the Black Panther Party. They organized fellow prisoners and studied the history and theory of revolution. They were an inspiration and example to prisoners and people outside the prisons. For the Louisiana prison authorities, this was their unforgiveable crime.

Robert King described how he became a revolutionary in prison in an interview several years ago with Dennis Bernstein of Pacifica Radio: "Many of the Panthers that were arrested in a shootout [with New Orleans police] came to the Parrish Prison. I became aware of what was taking place and I met those guys. We started to do things. We became an extension of the Black Panther Party. We carried its program into the Parrish Prison through certain means of communication. We started to deal with conditions in the Parrish Prison. We organized a hunger strike. At one time we got almost the whole prison—I think about 700 prisoners—to go on a hunger strike. The prison conditions were so horrible."

When Robert King was sent to Angola, he was able to hook up with Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, who had already started an Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party. The brutal, utterly inhumane and racist treatment of the Angola work farm was—and is—almost unchanged since its days as a slave plantation in the 1800s. Armed guards on horseback monitor gangs of Black men forced to work in the cotton and cane fields. The minority of white prisoners are given preferential treatment in housing, food, and everything else. Vicious beatings and rapes are meted out as punishment. Robert King said: "Herman and Albert and other folks recognized the violation of human rights in prison, and they were trying to achieve a better prison and living conditions. And as a result of that, they were targeted."

The government's case against the Angola 3 was riddled with lies, inconsistencies, and fabrications. The state claimed it "lost" DNA evidence favorable to the three. Bloody prints found at the scene of the killing do not match any of the three. All three men had multiple witnesses who testified that each of them was far from the murder scene when the killing happened.

But Herman and Albert were convicted for the guard's murder and punished relentlessly for their revolutionary politics. The current Angola warden justified the decades they spent in solitary in a court deposition: "Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace is locked in time with the Black Panther revolutionary actions they were doing way back when." He said that if he released them to the general prison population "I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand."

But the three never broke. Albert Woodfox spoke for all three in the movie, In the Land of the Free when he explained: "I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. So therefore, they could never break me. They might bend me a little bit, they might cause me a lot of pain. They might even take my life. But they will never be able to break me."

Unvanquished Revolutionary Spirit

The powers-that-be kept Herman Wallace behind bars for more than half his life, but they were unsuccessful in breaking his spirit. From the depths of this system's horrific dungeons Herman Wallace joined the struggle against inhumane prison conditions and answered letters from people who wrote to him about his case. He struck up a correspondence with an artist who asked him to describe his "dream house"—and his drawings were then turned into a scale model that became an art installation seen in galleries in a dozen countries. Just think about the fact that this tremendous and creative human resource for society, Herman Wallace, was locked up and tortured by this system for 41 years! (The documentary film Herman's House was shown on PBS in July.)

The state of Louisiana sought to punish Herman Wallace up to the moment of his death. A report on the New Orleans Times-Picayune web site said that the District Attorney for West Feliciana Parish re-indicted Herman for murder two days after he was released and went to a home in New Orleans to die. The D.A. was quoted as saying "I say he is a murderer..."

Herman Wallace spent most of his life in one of the most brutal and racist prisons in this country. He was deprived of the most basic human contact, day after day, for 41 years. Over and over he was tormented by the sadistic, bottomless cruelty of this capitalist-imperialist system's legal and police structures.

But from his tiny cell in the depths of a prison deep in the Louisiana swamps, Herman's enormous courage and unvanquished revolutionary spirit touched, inspired, and gave strength to countless people around the world. Three movies have been made about the Angola 3, and shown around the world. Thousands of people in many countries have rallied to their defense and signed petitions for their release.

As he faced his death, Herman Wallace courageously released a final statement: "I want the world to know that I am an innocent man and that Albert Woodfox is innocent as well. We are just two of thousands of wrongfully convicted prisoners held captive in the American Gulag. We mourn for the family of Brent Miller [the murdered prison guard] and the many other victims of murder who will never be able to find closure for the loss of their loved ones due to the unjust criminal justice system in this country. We mourn for the loss of the families of those unjustly accused who suffer the loss of their loved ones as well.

"Only a handful of prisoners globally have withstood the duration of years of harsh and solitary confinement that Albert and myself have. The State may have stolen my life, but my spirit will continue to struggle along with Albert and the many comrades that have joined us along the way here in the belly of the beast.

"In 1970 I took an oath to dedicate my life as a servant of the people, and although I'm down on my back, I remain at your service. I want to thank all of you, my devoted supporters, for being with me to the end."

After more than four decades of being tortured by this system, Herman Wallace was finally able to spend a few days, able to see the sun, the moon, able to embrace loved ones—a brief respite from the horrors of solitary confinement. His lawyers said in a statement: "One of the final things that Herman said to us was, 'I am free. I am free.'" But what is achingly sad—and utterly maddening—is that this vengeful system robbed him of almost all of his adult life.

In the future, after we get rid of this system, people may ask, a new generation may ask, "How bad was it?" The story of Herman Wallace would certainly stand as a powerful and painful illustration of the old society.


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