Judiciary Committee chairman drawing attention to Angola 3 case

Published 11:15 pm Thursday, March 20, 2008

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Three men who say they were improperly confined for decades in isolation cells at the Louisiana State Penitentiary got new attention for their case Thursday from the chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., toured the Angola prison and met with two of the prisoners known as the ‘‘Angola Three.’’

The three men — Robert King, Herman ‘‘Hooks’’ Wallace and Albert Woodfox — claim they are victims of cruel and unusual punishment because of the time they spent in solitary confinement at the state’s top-security prison.

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A lawsuit is pending in federal court in Baton Rouge on behalf of the men. Prisoners’ rights groups say they were wrongly held in isolation because of their political activity with the now-defunct Black Panthers.

Wallace and Woodfox, who say they were wrongfully convicted in a guard’s death, remain in isolation, where they have been since 1972. They are appealing their convictions. Prison officials have said Wallace and Woodfox are in solitary because they would be endangered if returned to the general prison population.

‘‘It’s about staff safety and offender safety,’’ said Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc. ‘‘If we’re going to (make an) error, we’re going to (make an) error on the side of safety.’’

King’s conviction for killing another inmate was overturned, and he was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement. King, who once used the last name Wilkerson, lives in Austin.

Conyers visited with Wallace and Woodfox for two hours and took a tour of the prison with warden Burl Cain and LeBlanc. Cain said the congressman met with the two prisoners in the chapel away from the warden and prison staff.

‘‘I think he was really impressed with the kindness of this prison,’’ Cain said.

Conyers didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee, state Rep. Cedric Richmond, said his committee will hold hearings on the Angola Three case, and he called on Gov. Bobby Jindal to pardon the men, calling their convictions wrong.

Jindal’s press secretary Melissa Sellers said the state Pardon Board must make a recommendation before a pardon request can be forwarded to the governor.

‘‘Additionally, there is still an appeals process going on. The Governor respects the function of the judicial system in our government and its ability to interpret, uphold and enforce the law to keep our state safe and ensure justice,’’ Sellers said in an e-mail.