Angola 3's Robert King
'Legality and morality are not friends; they don't mix in the courtroom,' says Robert King, a softly spoken man with a terrible tale. The 66-year-old with a careworn face and Louisiana drawl spent 29 years in solitary confinement in a US jail, locked in a 6ft by 9ft cell for 23 hours a day, for a crime he did not commit.
'Sometimes the spirit is stronger than the circumstances,' he says, when asked how he survived. 'My body was in the cell but my mind was beyond it: I had beautiful dreams. I was in prison but I wasn't going to let prison get in me.'
New Orleans native King, who had been convicted of armed robbery, was framed for the murder of a fellow inmate.
Until they were moved to a shared dormitory a month ago, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox had also been held in Closed Cell Restriction for nearly 36 years, the longest serving solitary prisoners in the world. They had similarly been convicted of the murder of a white prison guard - a crime even the guard's widow doubts they carried out.
While the current focus is on the justice America is meting out around the world - in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Bagram airbase - the so-called Angola Three stand as testament to the way the US treats its own citizens.
Why were they singled out? Because in the early 1970s, the previously non-activist Wallace, Woodfox and King established a Black Panther chapter in Angola - Louisiana's notorious, then-segregated state penitentiary.
They used civil disobedience and mass hunger strikes to demand improvements for the majority-black prisoners, who were being subjected to brutal conditions of racist violence on the plantation-turned-prison farm, including a sickening prisoner rape trade.
'The Panthers were America's biggest internal threat; they would have captivated poor people and reminded them they could be their own liberators,' says King, whose conviction was overturned in 2001.
Wallace and Woodfox are recognised as political prisoners/prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. One of their most devoted advocates was Dame Anita Roddick, who died last year.
'Mum was their umbilical cord to the outside world,' says Dame Anita's daughter, Sam, who 'inherited' Herman and Albert.
'I met Albert for the first time a month after she died. She had established an extraordinary relationship with these men. Her passion has been transferred to me: the injustice of their situation reeks.'
Roddick and all those involved understand the case of the Angola Three goes beyond the specific plight of these men. The US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world (one in every 100 adults).
African-Americans are hardest hit; black men are imprisoned at a rate six times greater than their white counterparts. The effect on society of such statistics is pressing. But with civil liberties being eroded in the US - and here - everyone is vulnerable.
'Herman and Albert's justice is our freedom because if the law can be perverted to that extent, none of us are safe,' says Roddick. She does, however, draw inspiration from the cause: 'They did change the prison system in Angola: if we can utilise the system to show true justice, we can change things.'
Another person finding hope in their situation is American artist Jackie Sumell, who started writing to Wallace and Woodfox in 2002. For a course project, she asked Wallace (now 67): 'What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6ft by 9ft cell for 30 years dream of?'
Six years of letters and drawings have resulted in The House That Herman Built, a touring exhibition currently presented in London by students from the Royal College of Art.
'The first thing he said was: "I never dream of a house; I've always thought of myself in the bush - on the battlefield,"' says Sumell. But imagination soon took hold: 'We had the hardest time defining space but details were minutely described: tabasco sauce in the pantry; the position of pictures on walls.'
Wallace wants a timber house so he can set it alight if under attack. There is a 6ft by 9ft bathtub, shagpile carpets, an underground bunker and a guesthouse for out-of-town activists. Sumell is raising money to build his home in New Orleans.
The exhibition also contains Sumell's recreation of Wallace's cell. The stark representation of where these three men have been kept has the force of a punch and provides a moving validation of everyone's struggle to see the Angola Three free at last.
For more information visit www.hermanshouse.org, www.angola3.org and www.whoishermanwallace.com The House That Herman Built is at 29 Thurloe Place, London SW7 until July 5. www.cca.rca.ac.uk/hermanshouse
April 20, 2008~The State Of Black America Part Two