Reflections on Herman Wallace – and I Discuss Guantánamo on Radio Stations in Portland and Johannesburg

9.10.13

Suddenly I’m talking to people on the radio all the time — for the first time since the height of the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo a few months back. I’ll shortly be speaking to an old friend, Peter B. Collins in San Francisco, and on Sunday I’ll be speaking to another old friend, Jackie Chase at Radio Free Brighton, and I’ll be making those shows available as soon as they’re online. On Saturday, I spoke to Chuck Mertz in Chicago for “This is Hell” (which I publicized here), and in the interests of completeness I’m posting here a couple of shows I did recently that I haven’t made available until now.

The first show was a half-hour interview with Linda Olson-Osterlund on KBOO FM in Portland,Oregon, which I wasn’t able to make available until now because of problems with KBOO FM’s website. These have now been resolved, and the interview is available here (or via the webpage here). Linda and I have been discussing Guantánamo for many years, and, although it is never a happy occasion to have to talk about Guantánamo, it was good to be able to discuss at length the ongoing injustice of the prison, the failure to close it, and the responsibilities for that failure, which lie with all three branches of the US government — the Obama administration, Congress and parts of the judiciary; specifically, the court of appeals in Washington D.C. and the Supreme Court.

The spur for our discussion was the release of two Algerian prisoners, and it is a sign of how very wrong things are at Guantánamo that they were the first two prisoners to be freed as a result of the wishes of the Obama administration — rather than through a court order or a plea deal in the military commission trials — since September 2010. The two men had been cleared for release in January 2010 by the inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established when he took office in January 2009, but while they have finally been released, 84 other men, also cleared for release by the task force, continue to be held, because of Congressional obstruction, and President Obama’s unwillingness to spend political capital overcoming the obstacles raised by Congress.

The death of Herman Wallace, and the ongoing need for justice for Albert Woodfox

I also want to note that Linda began the show by discussing Herman Wallace, of the Angola 3, who, at the time, was very ill with liver cancer, and had spent 41 years in solitary confinement in prison in the US. While imprisoned on other grounds, Herman, Robert King and Albert Woodfox were convicted in 1972 for the murder of a prison guard, although they always maintained their innocence, and stated that they were falsely implicated in the murder because they had been engaged in political activism in the prison as members of the Black Panther Party. Linda read out a powerful statement that Herman had issued at the time, which I’m posting below:

On Saturday August 31st, I was transferred to LSU Hospital for evaluation. I was informed that the che of the mo treatments had failed and were making matters worse and so all treatment came to an end. The oncologists advised that nothing can be done for me medically within the standard care that they are authorized to provide. They recommended that I be admitted to hospice care to make my remaining days as comfortable as possible. I have been given 2 months to live.

I want the world to know that I am an innocent man and that Albert Woodfox is innocent as well. We are just two of thousands of wrongfully convicted prisoners held captive in the American Gulag. We mourn for the family of Brent Miller and the many other victims of murder who will never be able to find closure for the loss of their loved ones due to the unjust criminal justice system in this country. We mourn for the loss of the families of those unjustly accused who suffer the loss of their loved ones as well.

Only a handful of prisoners globally have withstood the duration of years of harsh and solitary confinement that Albert and myself have.  The State may have stolen my life, but my spirit will continue to struggle along with Albert and the many comrades that have joined us along the way here in the belly of the beast.

In 1970 I took an oath to dedicate my life as a servant of the people, and although I’m down on my back, I remain at your service. I want to thank all of you, my devoted supporters, for being with me to the end.

Since then, Herman was released from prison, on October 1, after his murder conviction was overturned, and died just three days later. To mark his passing, I wrote a brief note on Facebook, stating:

Rest in peace, Herman Wallace, who has died after being free for just three days following 41 years — 41 years! — in solitary confinement. A judge overturned his murder conviction just in time for him to have fleeting freedom before he died of liver cancer. Look in the mirror, legislators of America, and you who claim to be Christians but carry only cruelty in your hearts, and ask how you can imprison anyone in solitary confinement for so long?

That, I’m glad to note, was very well received, but while Herman Wallace’s long ordeal is over, the remaining member of the Angola 3 (after Robert King was released in 2001) is Albert Woodfox, who is still held in solitary confinement.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, “called on the United States to immediately end the indefinite solitary confinement imposed on Albert Woodfox since 1972,” as the UN explained in a news release.

Juan Méndez said, “This is a sad case and it is not over. The co-accused, Mr. Woodfox, remains in solitary confinement pending an appeal to the federal court and has been kept in isolation in a 8-foot-by-12 foot (2.5 x 3.5 m. Approx.) cell for up to 23 hours per day, with just one hour of exercise or solitary recreation. Keeping Albert Woodfox in solitary confinement for more than four decades clearly amounts to torture and it should be lifted immediately.”

The UN added that Mr. Méndez “has repeatedly urged the US Government to abolish the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.”

He added, “I am deeply concerned about his physical and mental condition. The circumstances of the incarceration of the so-called Angola Three clearly show that the use of solitary confinement in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law.” He also stated, “I call for an absolute ban of solitary confinement of any duration for juveniles, persons with psychosocial disabilities or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row.”

41 years of solitary confinement is a cruel punishment that I find almost impossible to conceive of, although decades-long solitary confinement is standard procedure for the US prison system. I recommend anyone wanting to know more to regularly read the Solitary Watch website, run by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway.

The Ghosts of Guantánamo Bay

11 years and 9 months old, the prison at Guantánamo Bay cannot compete with the long ordeal of the Angola 3 — or, at least, not yet, although without leadership of a kind we have not yet seen, there is no automatic mechanism that will lead to the overwhelming majority of the remaining 164 prisoners to ever be freed, and those who are still alive may still be there in 30 years’ time.

I’m always delighted when campaigners draw connections between Guantánamo and the US domestic prison system, as there are clear connections to be made between both examples of America’s monstrous and punitive detention policies. At Guantánamo, of course, the isolation does not just involve, for many, solitary confinement for varying periods of time (and in many cases adding up to many years), but also isolation from their families. Whereas prison visits are allowed on the US mainland, even if physical contact is often prohibited, the prisoners at Guantánamo have never been allowed visits, even if their family members could somehow make it out to Guantánamo, and can only occasionally speak to their families on the phone.

I’m posting below a haunting South African song about Guantánamo by Zain Bhikha, featuring Dawud Wharnsby, which was written by Jeremy Karodia and Ayub Mayet, and which I heard at the start of another interview I undertook recently, with Ebrahim Gangat of Radio Islam International in Johannesburg. I have been speaking to Ebrahim for many years, but wasn’t aware until recently that podcasts of interviews are available. Our early morning interview is here (or via the webpage here), and the video of the song (and its lyrics) are posted below:

The Ghosts of Guantánamo Bay
By Zain Bhikha featuring Dawud Wharnsby
Written by Jeremy Karodia and Ayub Mayet

And the sun still shines on paradise island
Its radiance belies a deep dark deception
And as warm waters bathe paradise island
Its comfort conceals a cunning cold connivance

On the shimmering sands of paradise island
Cages and chains pray on our conscience
And as palm trees sway on paradise island
In the shadows they lurk persona non grata

Chorus

I can see the ghosts of Guantánamo Bay
I can hear the ghosts of Guantánamo Bay
I can feel the ghosts of Guantánamo Bay
Do you know they’re ghosts on Guantánamo Bay

Can you see the ghosts of Guantánamo Bay
Can you hear the ghosts of Guantánamo Bay
Can you feel the ghosts of Guantánamo Bay
Do you know they’re ghosts on Guantánamo Bay

And so ends all romantic notions
Discard due process, and redesign justice
Detained by decree, starved of humanity
Unaccused and untried, unconvicted, unjustified

Haunted voices echo in silence
Thoughts and feelings suppressed in blindness
Unseen faces imprisoned in darkness
And we all remain guilty in our ignorance

Repeat chorus

There are phantoms, apparitions
These are the lost souls of Guantánamo Bay
How they haunt us, freedom taunts us
And the lost souls of Guantánamo Bay

Repeat chorus

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Anna Giddings wrote:

    Thanks for this Andy. I still can’t stop thinking about the cruel treatment of Herman Wallace. I just hope Albert Woodfox will be released. What tragic lives foisted on them by others.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, agreed, Anna. I find it almost inconceivable that a politically motivated punishment from 41 years ago was only brought to an end in Herman’s case three days before his death. I was surprised that there isn’t an active campaign for Albert yet. Hopefully very soon …
    In the meantime, he continues to seek a new trial (his 3rd), in litigation pending at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans: http://theadvocate.com/home/7261745-125/angola-three-cases-continue-as

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Min Bee wrote:

    Very sad to hear this.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, 41 years in solitary confinement rather overshadows everything else, doesn’t it, Min? So appalling.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Min Bee wrote:

    I can’t imagine what being in solitary would be like for a day let alone 41 years. It’s sickening when I think of the addition of torture. I wish I could change things.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh Min, I know. But if we keep plugging away there will be change. Unfortunately we all have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul – on Guantanamo, on the death penalty, on solitary confinement …

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Linda Bond wrote:

    They have no mercy.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Indeed, Linda. Like two years ago, when the prison authorities in Georgia executed Troy Davis, even though a million people had signed petitions calling for a reprieve.

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Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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