Robert King is one of three Black Panthers who were framed for murder while in Louisiana State Penitentiary in the 1970s. Robert was held in solitary confinement for 29 years—but proved his innocence in 2001 and was released.
His comrades, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, are still being held. They are the longest-held prisoners in solitary isolation in US history.
Together they are known as the Angola 3, after the popular name of the prison—an 18,000 acre former slave plantation.
Robert told Socialist Worker, “After abolition they put the prison on the plantation and it repopulated it with black prisoners.”
Robert was first imprisoned at the age of 18 for robbery.
He was sent to Angola, where the authorities ran a brutal system.
Robert explains, “They gave some prisoners privileges and the right to control others. Some inmates were guarding other inmates. They were forcing other inmates into sexual slavery.”
In prison Robert joined the Black Panther Party.
They organised prisoners to demand an end to segregation and organised strikes and sit-ins for better conditions. They campaigned to end systematic rape and violence.
“The authorities were losing control because we were bringing this knowledge to the prison. When you challenge them you become ‘dangerous’.” Robert said.
“But we weren’t a danger to anyone, except the people running the jail because we undermined their system.”
In 1972 Herman and Albert were convicted of murdering a prison guard, despite evidence that they were not involved.
In 1973, Robert was wrongly accused of murdering another prisoner. At his trial he was bound and gagged.
The three were placed indefinitely in solitary confinement in six foot by nine foot cells.
Robert says this was because of their activism. “The warden didn’t make no bones about it,” he said. “He stated that as long as we held to our political beliefs we should be held.”
When asked how he managed to survive in solitary for nearly 30 years, Robert laughed. “I had already changed my mindset about prison before I was put in solitary. So, I was in prison, but prison wasn’t in me.
“I don’t want to give the idea that it was easy. But I had the ideology of the Black Panther Party and the truth on my side.
“I was a political prisoner, being held for a crime I hadn’t committed.
“It’s hard to get dipped in shit and not come up stinking, but you get up and brush yourself down.”
After release, Robert lived in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in 2005.
He said that most of the people who came to help were young whites—despite the government trying to stop them.
“They were saying ‘you’re not going to do this in our name any more’,” he added. “A lot of them will have gone on to vote for President Obama and I find that encouraging.”
He now lives in Austin, Texas, and is campaigning for the release of his imprisoned companions, against racism and working as a sweet maker.
He says, “If we want to change America we have to revisit the whole concept of prison. They have a false ideology of prison being a rehabilitation centre. There’s no such thing. If there’s any form of rehabilitation it’s people rehabilitating themselves.”
There are 2.5 million people in prisons run by the US government. Then there are 4.5 million who are on direct or indirect supervision. That’s more than seven million people.
At least 70 percent of prisoners are non-white.
Robert added, “Prisons keep people oppressed and intimidated.”
To young people today who are angry at the state of the world, Robert says, “Educate yourself. Keep focused and constantly criticise. Don’t be afraid to challenge the law.
“Young folks have to challenge the reality they live in. People collectively can do a lot.
“I don’t like to dictate to people what pebble they should throw in the pond to make a ripple. But I do believe we need to make ripples. They may want to throw a mountain in the pond.”