Screen shot from “Democracy Now!” broadcast featuring segment on Herman Wallace’s release

For over four decades, Herman Wallace (one of the Angola 3) was held in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The facility, also known as Angola prison, denied him the right to have the reasons for his cruel confinement conditions reviewed. This took place on top of the fact that there was significant corruption in the state’s case that led to his conviction for the murder of an Angola prison guard. But now, Wallace has been set free.

A district court judge in Louisiana vacated his conviction and sentence yesterday on the grounds that women had been systematically excluded from the grand jury that indicted him, a violation of his Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Judge Brian A. Jackson ordered the state to immediately release Wallace from custody and, within thirty days, the state would have to notify Wallace if they intended to re-indict him for allegedly being involved in the murder of a prison guard.

Compounding the cruelty of his decades of imprisonment, Wallace is dying. He has advanced liver cancer. In fact, he sent a message to those who had supported him informing them on August 31 that “chemo treatments had failed and were making matters worse so all treatment came to an end. The oncologists advised that nothing can be done for me medically within the standard care that they are authorized to provide.”

It was recommended that he be “admitted to hospice care to make” his “remaining days as comfortable as possible.” He was given “2 months to live.”

Despite the reality that Wallace is dying from liver cancer and had been ordered to be released, the state of Louisiana would not immediately let him go free. Wallace’s legal team spent most of October 1 trying to convince state officials to quit stalling and allow an ambulance to take him to hospice care. The state refused and pushed for a stay from the district court judge.

Jackson issued a second ruling late in the evening. He denied the motion for a stay and found Wallace had a “significant interest in his release” as he had “spent more than forty years in prison under a conviction and sentence based on an unconstitutional indictment.” The state was informed “failure to immediately release” Wallace from custody would result in “a judgment of contempt.” (Jackson reportedly did not leave his quarters until Wallace was released.)

The barbarism of the state of Louisiana, which has been directed at Wallace over the past four decades, is a product of systemic racism—the fact that Wallace was a Black Panther in the prison.

In the 1970s, as an Amnesty International report details, prisoners were segregated. Inmates were guarded by white officers and armed white inmates. There were a “high number of murders” and also “widespread use of sexual slavery among inmates.”

Wallace, along with Albert Woodfox, who were both imprisoned for “unrelated cases of armed robbery,” started a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party. Robert King joined them. The men “campaigned for fair treatment and better conditions for inmates; racial solidarity between black and white inmates; and an end to the rape and sexual slavery that was then endemic in the prison.”

On April 17, 1972, the day after a guard shack was firebombed, Miller was found dead. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were convicted of the crime, but, for the next decades, several details highlighted by NPR have become known: Hezekiah Brown, a serial rapist who claimed to be the key witness to the murder, was apparently offered a pardon for his testimony. The deputy warden even recalled that “you could make him say anything you wanted him to say.”

There was a “single bloody fingerprint ” found at the scene. It did not match Wallace or Woodfox, but the print was never tested by the state. The state adamantly refused.

Anne Butler, a forewoman of the grand jury that reindicted him in the 1990s, was the former wife of a warden in the Angola prison, Murray Henderson. She is known to have passed around a book to fellow jurors informing them that Woodfox and Wallace committed the murder. She even wondered why she was allowed to be a part of the jury and said to the district attorney at the time, “You are going to put me off this,” and he said “no.”

Many of these issues were raised in the courts, but the evidence never led a single court to vacate Wallace’s conviction and sentence and order the state to re-indict him if they thought he really did it and should remain in prison.

Why were they kept in solitary confinement conditions longer than any Americans in the history of this country? State and prison officials remained convinced they would practice “Black Pantherism” if they were released from isolation.

Burl Cain, an Angola prison warden, said in a deposition in 2008 that he would keep Woodfox in solitary confinement because he was “still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand and I would have the blacks chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict and I believe that. He has to stay in a cell while he’s at Angola.”

In 2008, the Warden of Angola prison said that Wallace’s record didn’t “really matter a lot.” Whether he had a clean record in the prison was irrelevant. “The original sentence, that’s why he’s there, that’s why he’s there and that’s why he’s going to stay there.”

The state could not have the Blacks organizing and possibly pushing for better conditions in the prison so Wallace and Woodfox had to be subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for decades.

Now, the state did remove him from isolation in July after it was reported that he was gravely ill. That removal was after the conditions had already aggravated his osteoarthritis, caused him memory loss and resulted in insomnia. It was after he was held near mentally ill inmates, who would shout and scream, making it near impossible to sleep.

It was after he had to live in a cage slightly bigger than six by nine feet. As he described in the film, Herman’s House:

HERMAN WALLACE: Being in a cage for such an extended period of time, it has its downfalls. I mean, you may not feel it, you may not know it, you may think that you’re OK, and you just perfunctorily move about, you know. However, when you was removed from out of that type of situation and placed in an open environment where, you know, you’re even breathing that oxygen and it’s getting into your lungs and you’re feeling something growing within you, and—you begin to develop a different mode within your body. I even watched my body. I’ve looked in the mirror, and I’ve seen muscles and [bleep] begin to pop out there. I began to run even faster and [bleep]. And I’m saying, “Whoa, what the hell is going on here?” Much was preserved. But then I got locked up again after eight months. And being locked up like that, the whole body just got confused.

*

On “Democracy Now!” this morning, it was reported by artist and supporter Jackie Sumell, who was at his bedside in the LSU Medical Center, that he had “taken a turn for the worse.” Doctors think his kidneys might be failing in addition to his liver. He is also unable to “speak a word.” And, “if you move him around, he’ll yell or indicate that he’s uncomfortable, but he doesn’t seem to be cognizant in any other way.”

Wallace’s defense attorney, George Kendall, also highlighted the current degrading treatment Woodfox is experiencing:

GEORGE KENDALL…[H]e has just recently again been subjected to anal searches every time he leaves his cell, whether it’s just a walk down the tier to take a shower. Albert, 30 years ago, on his own, filed a lawsuit and won a lawsuit that prohibited the Department of Corrections from engaging in those kind of searches. And we called that to the attention of the Corrections Department when they started doing it again, and they said, “We’re going to continue to do it.” We filed yesterday in federal court in Baton Rouge a lawsuit seeking an injunction barring the Department of Corrections from using that kind of search on Mr. Woodfox and others in that cell block.

AMY GOODMAN: The judge who issued the order that he should not be strip-searched like this—anal cavity, oral cavity strip-searched—died.

GEORGE KENDALL: That’s correct.

Woodfox’s case has “three times had his case overturned.” He won a case, where he argued there had been “racial discrimination in the grand jury composition in his case.” The state appealed and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is in the process of overturning this victory.

The third member of the Angola Three, Robert King, was released in February 2001, after being held in solitary confinement for 31 years. He, too, was targeted for his activism as a Black Panther. Authorities tried to accuse King of being involved in Miller’s murder, but he had been in a different prison. They could not successfully do this and ultimately placed him “under investigation,” which gave them the pretext to put him in solitary confinement. Then, in 1973, he was convicted of being involved in the murder of a prisoner simply because officials said he was nearby Grady Brewer, the prisoner who actually admitted committing the murder in self-defense.

This is the racist system Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. As she’s comprehensively explored, “There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Wallace, Woodfox and King are cases where it was excruciatingly difficult (and has been excruciatingly difficult) to free one’s self of the shackles imposed upon them unjustly.

Wallace may be free—and that is a huge victory for the movement that spent decades fighting to win him justice—but the state has not changed its attitude. Officials who have the decision-making power are infected with prejudice and could re-indict him if he does not die within the next 30 days.

And, in this system of injustice, absent a strong movement, there will be no punishment for the individuals in Louisiana state government, who perpetrated this racial violence against Wallace and continue to perpetrate racial violence against Woodfox as he remains in prison.

“Democracy Now!” segment on Herman Wallace’s release