It is hard to know what Herman Wallace is feeling right now. He is out of prison after spending much of the past four decades alone in a 6-by-9-foot cell, a symbol to many around the world of a corrupt criminal justice system and one member of a trio that has become known as the Angola Three.
But he can no longer speak.
Wallace is dying of liver cancer. A federal judge finally decided this week that Wallace did not receive a fair trial and ordered his release, but it is not clear whether he will live to see out the rest of his legal battle. His friends are arranging hospice care as he lies at LSU Medical Center in New Orleans.
Still, Robert King, who along with Wallace and Albert Woodfox was convicted of murders inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the 1970s, said he has no doubt Wallace understands what has happened.
King said he spoke with Wallace just before his release and sensed that he took the judge’s ruling as at least a consolation.
“What Herman couldn’t express I think he showed in his eyes,” King said.
The state, of course, still officially considers Wallace to be a murderer.
Woodfox, who along with Wallace was convicted in the stabbing death of prison guard Brent Miller, 23, in 1972, is still locked away. And East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III is pursuing an appeal in Wallace’s case that theoretically could send him back to prison.
But given Wallace’s failing health, as described by his friends and attorneys, the following days or weeks could see a conclusion of sorts in a struggle that has kept the debate over race and the practice of solitary confinement in Louisiana prisons alive for decades.
Known as the “Angola Three,” Wallace, King and Woodfox have maintained since their convictions that state officials singled them out as killers because of their civil rights activism inside Angola, where they were all serving time for separate crimes.
Norris Henderson, a local activist who spent nearly three decades in Angola himself, recalled meeting Wallace at the Orleans Parish Prison at a time when radical civil rights organizations had begun to spread inside of jails and prisons around the country.
“This was the height of the Black Consciousness Movement,” Henderson said.
“A lot of the guys in the Black Panthers were in the jail, and every evening they had these teaching sessions. Guys would be educating people about the system, about themselves.”
Later, at Angola, Wallace and others formed part of their own Black Panther group, hoping, they claimed, to reduce the frequency of murder, rape and abuse that had earned Angola the reputation as the nation’s bloodiest prison in the 1960s and 70s.
In a civil lawsuit filed in 2009, Wallace’s attorneys argued that poor conditions in Angola at the time were exacerbated by a set of old-guard leaders at the prison resisting reform efforts ordered by then Gov. John McKeithen. An associate warden, Hayden Dees, they charged, was already on guard against what he considered “a certain type of militant or revolutionary inmate, maybe even a communist type.”
So when Miller, the prison guard, was found with 32 stab wounds, they argued, Wallace and other “militant” inmates were among the usual suspects to be rounded up.
He and Woodfox were eventually charged and given life sentences, remaining in a form of solitary confinement for decades afterward.
King, also a member of the Black Panthers at the time, joined them in solitary confinement — rounding out the Angola Three — after being convicted of killing an inmate in a separate case.
Civil rights activists have called them political prisoners. They point to a dearth of physical evidence in the case, and the fact that one fellow inmate testified against them in return for regular cartons of cigarettes and the possibility of an early release.
King’s conviction got overturned and he was released in 2001 after 29 years, but the rest of the Angola Three failed to win appeals that dragged on over decades, at least until this week.
Amnesty International argues “Louisiana prison authorities have failed to meaningfully review the men’s continued isolation, simply rubber stamping the original decision to confine the men,” in what’s known as Closed Cell Restriction — not locked in a windowless box, but kept in a cell alone for at least 23 hours a day.
Documentarian Vadim Jean explored the case in a 2010 film called, “In the Land of the Free.”
And another film premiered recently on PBS by the New York artist Jackie Sumell, exploring the psychological implications of spending so much time behind bars.
In the latter, Wallace acknowledges committing crimes, even stealing instruments from a school, when he was growing up in New Orleans.
And he describes vividly the experience of confinement, recalling at one point a dream in which he leaves Angola through the front gate.
“You ain’t going to believe this, but I was dancing my way out,” Wallace says. “And people were just laughing and clapping.”