Obituary: Herman Wallace

Herman Wallace
Herman Wallace

Following the news that Herman Wallace had finally gained his freedom on 1st October and that he might be able to get some much needed medical treatment and be able to live out his final days in relative freedom and comfort, the sight of him barely able to speak whilst laying on an ambulance trolley came as a shock.

This was compounded by the news that Louisiana state authorities had convened a grand jury in order to reindict him on murder charges two days later. Fortunately Herman never found out about the reindictment as friends and family kept the news from him. Sadly, the following day – nine days before his 72nd birthday – he died in his sleep from complications associated with liver cancer whilst in his friend Ashley Wennerstrom’s house, where he had been staying following his release. “He didn’t say a lot. He was exhausted,” said Ms Wennerstrom. “We told him he was free. He nodded and he knew”.Herman, or ‘Hooks’ as he was known to family and friends, was the fourth of eight children whose mother, Edna Clark Williams, ironically worked in the Orleans Parish Prison.

Like many black teenagers, he had a number of minor run-ins with the police and ended up in prison for the first time in 1967 aged 25. However, in 1971 he was sentenced to 50-year in prison for armed robbery and ended up in Louisiana State Penitentiary. This is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, and is more widely known as Angola after the name of one of the four slave plantations that had previously occupied the site.

Three-quarters of Angola’s prisoners are black and 97% are doomed to die there with- out chance of release. On this 18,000-acre prison farm, they still harvest cotton, corn and wheat today for between four and twenty cents an hour under the watchful eye of armed guards on horseback.

Back in the early 1970s, the conditions were even worse. The mainly black prison population worked a 16-hour day guarded by an all-white guard force and administration with the small number of white prisoners also acting as armed trustees.
In addition to the widespread brutality and use of segregation, and the almost total lack of medical care, there operated a gruesome system of sexual slavery, where new prisoners were openly bought and sold, fully sanctioned and facilitated by the guards.

This was the environment Herman Wallace and his fellow prisoner Albert Woodfox, also imprisoned on a separate armed robbery sentence, were confronted with in 1971. Though neither had previously been politically active, they decided to try and form a Black Panther Party (BPP) chapter in Angola and began organising non-violent hunger and work strikes and sit-ins in a campaign for desegregation in the prison and better conditions, and against rape and violence. When, in April 1972, a 23-year-old prison guard Brent Miller was stabbed to death during a riot at Angola, the prison administration seized their chance to silence these dangerous radicals and put an end to the burgeoning solidarity and resistance amongst Angola’s prisoners.

Despite neither being anywhere near the scene of the riot and death, Herman and Albert, together with a third prisoner, were charged with Miller’s murder.

At the time of the killing, Herman had been working in the licence plate factory and would have had to pass through numerous locked and guarded gates. In addition, ‘witnesses’ at their trial stated that he was covered in blood following the stabbing, yet as he had passed each gate and was given a thorough pat-down at the end of his shift, no security guard ever testified to seeing any blood on him. In fact, there was no evidence against him except the tainted statements of bribed ‘witnesses’, one of whom was legally blind and another, 67-year-old serial rapist and ‘star’ witness Hezekiah Brown, was later shown to have given his statement in return for the promise of a pardon, a packet of cigarettes a week and a house of his own in the prison grounds complete with television for the remains of his sentence.

The key evidence of a bloody fingerprint found at the scene, which did not fit any of the four defendants, was quickly ‘lost’ and the statements of unpaid eyewitnesses putting Herman and Albert elsewhere during the killing counted for nothing. Prison authorities even tried to link Robert King, who had already been involved in the BPP and had arrived in Angola shortly after Miller’s death, to the killing, such was their desire to try and put an end to the Black Panthers organising in their fiefdom.

However, in 1973 they managed to frame King (who was already serving 35 years for a crime he had not committed) for the murder of another prisoner and he was sentenced to life without parole during a trial which he spent bound and gagged and unable to defend himself.

All three ended up in solitary confinement, which is where Robert first met Herman and Albert. The Closed Correction Cell unit, as it is known, consists of six-foot by nine-foot cells in which prisoners spend all their time except for an hour a day for exercise and a shower a few times a week. Contact with the outside world is limited to occasional visits and phone calls. Under these conditions, they set about to continue their struggle, successfully organising their fellow prisoners to improve their prison conditions, despite their isolation from the rest of the prison population. They also vowed to collectively resist the desocialisation commonly suffered by prisoners in long-term solitary.

Herman and the others also filled their waking hours with reading and correspondence, which, with their gathering fame as the ‘Angola Three’, was significant. They also became prolific litigators and Herman went before review boards more than a hundred times to appeal his placement in solitary. They made chessboards out of tissue paper, fastening sixty-four tissue squares to their concrete floors with toothpaste to make boards, and made expertly sculpted tissue paper rooks and kings.

In 2001, after 29 years in solitary, Robert King had his murder conviction successfully overturned and was released after pleading guilty to a lesser conspiracy charge. He continued to campaign on behalf of his imprisoned comrades and prisoners around the world.

Meanwhile, Herman and Albert remained in solitary, except for a brief period in 2008 when they were both moved to a maximum-security dormitory after Albert had his conviction overturned and was granted full habeas corpus.

Within months the decisions were over-turned and both were back in solitary before the year ended. Shortly thereafter they were moved away from Angola to separate prisons: a massive wrench after having spend so long in neighbouring cells, helping each other maintain their spirits via what little passing contact they could snatch.

Herman was moved into a prison hospital ward in June this year following a diagnosis of liver cancer, probably a result of the Hepatitis C that he had contracted either from contaminated blood or from a prison tattoo. Following this news, his supporters redoubled their efforts to get him decent treatment and even compassionate release, an effort further spurred on with his terminal diagnosis.

That it took two orders from a federal judge (the first overturning his conviction because women had been excluded from the jury in his and Albert’s 1974 trial) and a further threat of contempt before prison officials finally released him.

If I was actually guilty of this crime, why would the authorities plant evidence, create false witnesses, discard valuable evidence and then place me in an isolated cell for 26 years, denying me of the most basic human needs in this twentieth century? The State and the FBI committed every dirty trick possible to frame me for this murder. They believed I would never find out the truth about their demonic behaviour because the FBI and the DA’s files were then considered confidential… I am innocent of the death of Guard Miller, and I vow to fight this farce to the last pulse in my veins.

He did, and his friends and comrades worldwide respect him for that.

Herman Joshua Wallace (born 13th October 1941, died 4th October 2013)

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Meanwhile, Albert Woodfox remains in solitary despite his conviction now having been overturned three times, most recently in February 2013 following a finding of racial discrimination in the selection of his grand jury foreperson. He still needs our help to bring him home – preferably before he is left with only days to live.