Free at last—and freely speaking
After 29 years in solitary, Robert Hillary King gets exonerated
Robert Hillary King has spent most of his adult life in prison, including 29 years in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s infamous “slave plantation,” Angola State Prison. Now he’s free, absolved of his crime, and traveling the country to talk about his soon-to-be released autobiography, From the Bottom of the Heap.
Dozens of Chico State students, along with professors, social activists and others, packed the Chico City Council chambers Tuesday (Sept. 23) to listen to King speak.
Sentenced originally to 35 years for a crime he did not commit, in prison King joined the Black Panther Party and attempted to organize prisoners to improve their abysmal living conditions. In return, prison authorities allegedly beat him, starved him, and framed him for a second crime that resulted in a sentence of life without parole.
King spent 29 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell. Eventually he became known as one of the “Angola 3,” convicts whose cases became famous as examples of “political prisoners” treated unfairly.
The African American revolutionist, who grew up in New Orleans, said he started fighting against oppression and discrimination at a young age. But when he began feeling like a slave, he rebelled.
“I began to look at the system for what I thought it was—I felt empty,” King said. “I began to feel I had no moral obligation to a system of oppression.
“After being found guilty I lost all respect for the system,” he added. “I saw myself being treated as a slave.
“I was in prison, but prison was not in me,” he continued. “Am I bitter? Of course; I am human. … I can take this so-called bitterness and change it—use it in a positive direction.”
King first went to prison when he was about 18 for a robbery. He served nine years. Then, he said, he was convicted of another robbery, even though he was innocent. Soon after being imprisoned, King joined the Black Panther Party because he felt he had “a moral right to rebel” because he felt like a slave living in unsanitary conditions and he wanted to put a face on oppression.
He was framed for the murder of an inmate, and went to the “hole,” or segregation, for 29 of the 31 years of his prison term. Finally, in 2001, the state of Louisiana exonerated and released him.
In the book, King writes that his fellow Black Panther Party organizers Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox—the other two in the Angola 3—were framed for the murder of a prison guard. A strong campaign has been waged to free the two prisoners, who remain at Angola, and a civil suit is pending based on claims that their solitary isolation is a violation of their protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Also, Amnesty International has added the Angola 3 to its “watch list” of political prisoners of conscience, according to the Web site of the Chico Peace and Justice Center, one of the sponsors of King’s visit. The site also states that Woodfox and Wallace are the longest-held prisoners in solitary isolation (or closed-cell restriction) in the United States.
“In a democratic society, we need to have a fair and accountable criminal-justice system,” said Sue Hilderbrand, director of the center. “Here is an example of a travesty of injustice. We need to work together, to get all political prisoners out.”
“It’s a sad story,” said A.J. Gold, a criminal-justice major who attended King’s talk. “It questions our prison system. … I have mixed feelings. I think people are wrongfully accused, but at the same time I think [the prison system] is effective.”
During the event, a woman spoke about a small study she recently conducted where she interviewed 10 young African Americans in Chico about discrimination. She said it was important to realize that it “isn’t just happening somewhere else,” but rather that “this is happening in our town” and across the world.
“The struggle continues,” King said. “Freedom isn’t something intangible … I don’t take it for granted.”