Still in Chains

Two weeks ago Herman Wallace died of liver cancer three days after being granted release from Louisiana State Penitentiary by a federal district judge. Wallace had been in solitary confinement for the past forty years for the 1972 murder of prison guard Brent Miller. Wallace with Robert King and Albert Woodfox collectively made up the Angola 3. The three were originally incarcerated for armed robbery but gained notoriety after they organized the prison’s first chapter of the Black Panther Party. The controversy surrounding Brent Miller’s killing created a sharp divide between supporters and critics, but the situation is better understood in a larger context.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola is a lawless jungle averaging 90 stabbings a year in the early ‘70s. In 1973, 13 prisoners died from stabbing. It gained a reputation for sadistic living conditions, traumatic prisoner abuse, and rampant sexual assault.

Historically, Angola’s notoriety comes from the location of the prison, which is one of the poorest communities in the area. The prison has been run by illiterate white guards who maintain a strangle hold over a black population. The inmates plant gardens and water cotton fields as a guard oversees them with bloodhounds and shotguns. Nearly 200 of the guards torture the inmates on a regular basis. At its worst, they traded prisoners in a slave market. This relationship bred antagonism between inmates and guards.

When Wallace and his accomplices came to Angola, they stepped into a tinderbox. They helped organize The Angolite, an inmate-run newspaper designed to report the horrors occurring at the prison. Violence between the two classes reached its height in 1972 when Brent Miller was stabbed to death on a dorm cell floor.

These conditions are not unique to Louisiana. In addition, one in eight black males are behind bars, mostly for non-violent drug convictions. In addition, 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners are from the U.S. Thus, the United States continues with its tainted racial and class-based history. Even 150 years after the end of slavery, this country continues to keep black men in chains.

The Angola 3 represented the cry of the first slave brought over from Africa who said, “No!” They resist for the liberation of every human being confined to a cell. In the late 1960s, black people were still being lynched, their churches firebombed. The only response to such brutal violence was a proportional militant backlash. The Black Panthers emphasized self-defense and democratic community building. Class-based racial tension dominated the 1970s as various black liberation groups actively fought the supremacist forces that oppressed them. The Black Liberation Army infamously robbed armored cars from wealthy banks and broke Black Panther members out of jail. Many prominent civil rights leaders became outspoken critics of the prison-industrial complex. Angela Davis called for prison abolition on the basis of its inherently immoral structure. Later, the Anarchist Black Cross formed to free all political prisoners across the world.

Since then, the black community suffered through disturbing police suppression leading to race riots in the 1990s, all of it met with apathetic acknowledgements of their misery. With hope, these voices from the past can reinvigorate the Civil Rights Movement. Abu-Jamal currently broadcasts radio from his cell in Frackville, PA. Angela Davis is still a leading presence in the prison reform movement. From Assata Shakur to Bobby Seale, surviving Black Panthers continue to fight for justice. With their help, we can finally end the last remnants of slavery that stain American history.

Information shown in this article was taken from :

“Doubts Arise About 1972 Agola Prison Murder,” by Laura Sullivan. October 27, 2008.

“Criminal Justice Fact-Sheet,”