(Un)American underground and solitary confinement
A few weeks ago, when Nelson Mandela was battling it out with what could be euphemistically called the summation of life, the US president Barack Obama, while paying him a visit in the hospital, was also greatly humbled to visit the bleak cell in Robben Island jail where Mandela had spent 18 of his 27 years in prison during the apartheid regime. Obama wrote in the guestbook that his family was deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield, and that the world was grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells could match the strength of the human spirit. It was a fitting tribute to one of the world’s bravest heroes who fought with success the injustice of a powerful system non-violently with the strength of their mental grit and strong character.
Take now what Nelson Mandela said about the character of nations basing on the treatment it metes out to its jail inmates, ‘It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.’ A small irony pops out its bitter nose to nudge you to wake up to the sad side of things in life – the sufferance of a few helpless jail inmates who could only find true escape to freedom when death came calling as an ultimate help. The irony is that despite the best of efforts put in by humanitarian organisations like the Amnesty International and a few good men who matter, the strength of human spirit fails to battle it out with the cavalier system even in these times when heroes who run systems apparently walk their great talks on the subject with elegance and style.
On 4 October this year, died Herman Wallace, a jail inmate incarcerated for forty one years in solitary confinement in Angola Prison, Louisiana in the States on charge of stabbing to death a 23-year-old prison guard Brent Miller along with two other men, Robert Hillary King and Albert Woodfox. The three convicts, famously known as the Angola Three, thanks to their being subjects of documentaries such as In the Land of the Free (2010), 3 Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation (2006), and a music video produced by Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics, all protesting their many decades long and inhuman incarceration in solitary confinement.
Wallace and Woodfox had formed the prison chapter of the Black Panthers in 1972 after coming in contact with some of its members and organized movements inside the prison to end rapes and other forms of brutality to jail inmates, especially the blacks, for better living conditions and for working as jailhouse lawyers to help prisoners file legal papers. What followed were strikes and sit-ins and the fight with prison guards. In 1973, the Angola Three were convicted of the murder of the guard and kept in solitary confinement. While King, who had not arrived the prison until after the Miller incident, was released after 29 years of solitary confinement after his first conviction was overturned and he pleaded guilty to a lesser conspiracy to commit murder charge, the just deceased Herman Wallace served 36 years in solitary confinement before being moved to maximum security dormitory. But the inhuman and unconstitutional act of depriving him of human contact for such a long time and enforcing on him almost immobile and sedentary lifestyle had already taken its toll on him by giving him an advance stage of liver cancer.
Wallace died of cancer just three days after his release from the jail, reportedly shouting, ‘I am a free man, I am a free man.’ Lucky him that he died at least as a free man, considering just a day before his death on 3 October, 2013, a West Feliciana Parish grand jury re-indicted him for the 1972 murder of the prison guard. Amnesty International had called for his release in July 2013 on humanitarian grounds, whose appeal fell on the deaf ears of the authorities. Louisiana’s Attorney General James Caldwell opposed the release of two men with what he termed as every fiber of his being. The irony is that many involved with the case, including the widow of Brent Miller, the murdered prison guard, who believed that the three men were innocent of her husband’s murder.
The ironies in those two strength of human spirit quotes – of the first man of the USA in the form of his articulate comments in that historic prison guestbook, and of Mandela’s insightful, well-experienced observation of ultimate truth about nations standing in bad stead that treat their prisoners so badly, stand in dark contrast because the tragedy of the Angola Three happened in the land of great hope and justice.
The long international attention and its appeals for the release of Wallace, the soulful documentaries and music demanding justice for him with ample proof that the trial was insufficient and biased, and was rife with prosecutorial misconduct; the cry for justice and human treatment to Wallace in shape of many socio-political projects on him, including the artistic and dreamy project, Herman’s House – a documentary, failed to save him from the firm grip of an unconscionable prison system. It is believed that over 80,000 prisoners are currently in solitary confinement in American jails and prisons.