Thursday, July 28, 2011

Showdown at Angola: God’s Warden vs. Veteran Muckraker

(Illustration of Burl Cain by Jack Unruh, Mother Jones)

Mother Jones writer James Ridgeway has written a new article about his recent visit to Angola Prison and his many failed attempts to interview Warden Burl Cain. While published in the July/August issue of Mother Jones, it has just been released online this week, and the full article can be viewed here.

For several years prior to this article, Ridgeway has been writing an excellent series of articles about the Angola 3, and this did not make him a favorite of Cain and Angola authorities. He writes that “when I requested permission to visit the prison and interview Cain, back in 2009, Fontenot turned me down flat. Cain, she said, was not happy with what I had written about the Angola Three, a trio of inmates who have been in solitary longer than any other prisoners in America…After more than a year of trying to get into Angola, I…turned to a lawsuit. In March 2010, the ACLU agreed to represent me on a First Amendment claim arguing that to keep government information from a reporter merely on the basis of what he's written is an infringement on press freedom.” Then, as “the ACLU prepared to file suit in federal court, Fontenot wrote to them, inviting me down for a tour.”

Ridgeway, traveling from out of state, writes that he was expecting to finally interview Cain: “When we'd scheduled the tour, she'd promised me an interview with Cain provided he was at Angola when I visited, which she expected him to be. But when I asked, ‘Where's the warden?’ she said matter-of-factly, ‘Oh, he's in Atlanta today.’”

Despite Ridgeway’s visit and subsequent attempts by telephone and email, he has never been granted an interview with Warden Burl Cain. Below is a short excerpt from Ridgeway’s article, where he focuses on the Angola 3. He writes that while Cain is publicly praised for his efforts to convert inmates to Christianity:

With those who resist salvation, Cain takes a somewhat different approach—as the men known as the Angola Three found out. When they came to Angola in 1971 for armed robbery, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were Black Panthers, and they began organizing to improve prison conditions. That quickly landed them on the wrong side of the prison administration, and in 1972 they were prosecuted and convicted for the murder of a prison guard. They have been fighting the conviction ever since, pointing out that one of the eyewitnesses was legally blind, and the other was a known prison snitch who was rewarded for his testimony.

After the murder, the two—along with a third inmate named Robert King—were put in solitary, and Woodfox and Wallace have now spent nearly four decades in the hole—something Cain has suggested has more to do with their politics than with their crimes (King was released in 2001 when his conviction in a separate prison murder was overturned). In a 2008 deposition, he said Woodfox "wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize. He wants to be defiant...He is 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 kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them."

Wallace's and Woodfox's lawyers have pointed out that the two men, now in their sixties, have had a near-perfect record for more than 20 years. In response, Cain argued that "it's not a matter of write-ups. It's a matter of attitude and what you are...Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace is locked in time with that Black Panther revolutionary actions they were doing way back when...And from that, there's been no rehabilitation." Wallace has said that Cain suggested that he and Woodfox could be released into the general population if they renounced their political views and embraced Jesus.

I asked Fontenot about the Angola Three, and she told me matter-of-factly that they just hadn't played by the rules. Anyway, Wallace and Woodfox had recently been shipped off to other prisons in the state system. I asked about solitary confinement. The prisoners in what Angola calls "closed cells" had everything they needed, she said. It was like having a little apartment.

**We in the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 would like to thanks James Ridgeway for all his work shining a light on Angola Prison and the unjust frameup of the Angola 3. Be sure to read our recent interview with Ridgeway and Solitary Watch co-author Jean Casella, here.

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