“There is something drastically wrong with the system. We want to do something about this,” said Robert ‘King’ Wilkerson, a former political prisoner and one of the “Angola 3.”
Wilkerson spoke to students last night about the U.S. prison system, including his wrongful incarceration for the murder of a fellow prisoner in 1973 and investigation claiming his involvement in the murder of a prison guard in 1972.
In the opening remarks, Zeke Rediker ’09, a member of PAC, informed the audience of Wilkerson’s release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the former Angola slave plantation, on Feb. 8, 2001.
Wilkerson spent 29 years in solitary confinement for the murder of a fellow prisoner for which he was wrongly incarcerated. Initially Wilkerson was incarcerated for a minor robbery charge in 1961; however, he was investigated, along with Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, for the murder of a prison guard. Woodfox and Wallace are currently still falselyincarcerated for that murder. The three men together constitute the “Angola 3.”
Wilkerson said that he believes he was wrongly incarcerated for the murder on account of the threat he imposed as an activist, having been involved with the Black Panther Party and his work to improve prison conditions, along with Woodfox and Wallace, who founded the chapter of the Black Panther Party in the Angola prison.
“There are people who still believe that America is heaven. I am here to tell you today that in heaven, they have some people catching hell. I’m here to tell you about hell,” Wilkerson said in his opening remarks.
The “hell” that Wilkerson spoke of was what prompted him to become involved in the Black Panther Party and to become more politically active.
“I was a rebel with a cause, but I did not have a political consciousness. It was the Black Panther Party that gave me this awareness,” he said.
Wilkerson discussed the conditions of Angola, which included a 17-hour work day gathering sugarcane for two cents an hour, which has since been raised to the current rate of four cents an hour. He described the prison as very segregated, and along with Woodfox and Wallace, sought to educate the other inmates and work to improve the system.
Today, over 1,500 life sentences have been served at Angola. There are two graveyards of Angola’s 18,000 acres, one which Wilkerson described as being totally full. He likened this prison and the U.S. prison system to a new form of slavery, saying that when the preexisting form of slavery was eliminated, “another form was erected.”
Wilkerson’s experience in prison falls into the larger framework of national problems, as he also addressed the lack of government aid given to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the number of young people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who reached out to help the victims.
“I think the aftermath of Katrina provided an opportunity for a movement. I think people now really see what a lot of people are saying about the disparities of the system,“ he said.
As for the status of Woodfox and Wallace, they are deemed “legally alive,” meaning that there is still enough time to appeal their cases and for them to be released. In a recent hearing for Woodfox’s case, it was recommended by a grand jury that the case be overturned and given a new trial, according to Wilkerson.
He concluded by saying, “People need to take their destiny into their own hands and stop relying on the government. You have a moral right to rebel; I think the answer is within you.”
The event was sponsored in part by the Prison Activist Coalition, an organization that seeks to educate the Cornell community about the conditions of prisons through internal group discussion, outreach programs, and actual prison visits, said Kalisa Martin ’08, a member of PAC.
Also in attendance were law students from the National Lawyers Guild chapter at Cornell, who celebrated the “Day Against the Death Penalty.” This day is part of a national outreach campaign to abolish the death penalty. NLG has planned a number of events relating to the campaign from March 26 to 30 at the law school.
In a press release, Andrew Cowan law ’08, co-president of NLG, said, “Centuries of experience have shown that we are unable to develop a system that singles out the worst of the worst for the ultimate penalty. Instead, death row often houses the victims of the worst lawyers.”