September 10, 2002

Innocence Bound
Inside Angola Prison

by Anita Roddick


As the billboards and Cajun fishing shacks swooshed by along the road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, the swampy delta landscape looked familiar: 12 years ago, I traveled this road to the prison at Angola in Louisiana with the Danish vagabond, Jacob Holdt. We had toured the shantytowns just beyond the prison walls where families of prisoners settled to be nearer their shackled kin. But on this day, I would venturing inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the first time, to meet with 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 a year ago made my blood run cold in my veins (see sidebar). 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 an oppressive government that feels threatened by their intelligence and activism as any of the men and women in Amnesty International's campaigns. But for some reason, the fact they wallow in a prison in America--a reputed democracy and bastion of freedom and civility--their story has not been told.

In the early 1970s , when the Angola Three dared to stand up for basic human rights and dignity inside the prison, Angola had been declared "the bloodiest prison in America." It was racially segregated, and inmate guards were permitted to carry loaded weapons. Inmate-on-inmate rape and murder were nearly daily occurrences. Some say reformers have improved conditions in some respects, but violence and corruption still plague the place.

I for one, wanted to hear the story from the Angola Three themselves, and see the prison for myself. So I headed back to the swamplands of southern Louisiana to do just that.

Down on "The Farm"

There is something unnervingly perfect about the prison grounds--at least, the parts the public is permitted to see. The core complex of outbuildings, concrete cellblocks, and massive dormitories, is surrounded by 18,000 acres of lush cropland and perfectly manicured lawns. It looked like something out of a David Lynch movie. So beautiful and ideal, it was vaguely sinister. Even the miles of coils of razor wire gleamed as if it were hand-polished daily. Norman Rockwell himself couldn't have done better. Outside of the constant clanging of keys, a visitor to this place could almost forget they are in a prison, and not in some Doris Day movie. Unfortunately, all that is window dressing covering some ugly truths.

Once inside the prison, I was searched by guards and sniffed for drugs or weapons by dogs, and permitted only my passport and a few dollars to carry inside. The guards noted my British accent and began regaling me with their opinions on the Royal Family. They had learned all they knew of the Windsors through the National Enquirer, and argued with good humor against Prince Charles, who they said was cold and hadn't loved Princess Diana sufficiently. I defended Charles, half-heartedly and to no avail. Given our environment, the conversation was ridiculous and banal. Just in time, dozens of other visitors and I were whisked off in enormous blue busses to the visiting area, where I finally met Albert.

The moment he 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 globalisation. He consistently showed an amazing antenna for stories of people who have been marginalized through war or injustice. His capacity for empathy was breathtaking.

I suddenly felt phony for even being there, offering to help when he had been waiting three decades for someone to notice his predicament, suffering in solitude but with dignity. What did I have to offer, how could I possibly relate to a man who has been locked up for 30 years in a tiny cell? For a long time, it was all I could do just to listen. Listening has never been my strong suit.

Three Decades in Solitary Confinement

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 90 degrees, and humid. The CCR cellblock has one fan for every five cells, and no air conditioning. But Albert did not complain.

Instead, Albert talked about his mother, who had raised Albert and his siblings alone, keeping food on the table, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads--he called his childhood home "an oasis in a pocket of poverty" -- by working as a prostitute. Just before she died, his mother asked him, "Albert, when those white folks gonna let you out?" He talked about his sister, who has been his biggest supporter, who lies dying from cancer in New Orleans, unable to visit him anymore. Albert hopes to be permitted to attend her funeral, a hope probably misplaced.

For a man with so much reason to be angry or hopeless, Albert is remarkably peaceful and calm, focused on his belief that someday justice will be done. If there is a Zen word for "waitfulness," Albert is the embodiment of it. He said when Robert "King" Wilkerson, a fellow Panther and Angola 3 inmate, was released in 2001 after 28 years in solitary by proving he had been falsely accused, Woodfox said he and Herman Wallace "felt that a part of us was finally free, too."