[Pnews] Angola inmate, Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, argues that three decades in solitary is unconstitutional punishment

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 11 15:55:13 EDT 2015


  Angola inmate argues that three decades in solitary is
  unconstitutional punishment


    Whitmore, serving life in 1973 killing, filed lawsuit against warden

Annie Ourso and Julie Hebert| Special to The Advocate
May 11, 2015
*http://theadvocate.com/news/12056320-123/angola-inmate-argues-that-three*
<http://theadvocate.com/news/12056320-123/angola-inmate-argues-that-three#comments> 


For almost all of his more than three decades at Angola, Kenny “Zulu” 
Whitmore’s world has been framed by the 9-by-6-foot cell where he is 
kept for 23 hours each day.

A self-professed member of the now-defunct Black Panther Party, 
Whitmore, 60, believes his long stay in what Louisiana State 
Penitentiary officials call “closed cell restriction” is because of his 
political beliefs.

Last year, Whitmore, who is serving a life sentence for a 1973 murder, 
filed a lawsuit against Warden Burl Cain and prison officials, claiming 
his extended lockdown violates his constitutional rights, specifically 
the Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. His 
attorneys, Michelle Rutherford and Rose Murray, argue that their client 
should not be punished for his beliefs, while also arguing they do not 
make Whitmore a threat.

But Cain disagrees.

While he didn’t mention the Black Panthers specifically, Cain told the 
LSU Manship School Wrongful Convictions Project team that he would not 
“allow any supremacy groups” in Angola’s general prison population.

“Kenny is stuck in the past, and he won’t change,” he said. “I would let 
him out if he showed he’s changing.”

Rutherford and Murray have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to 
return Whitmore to the general prison population and for damages caused 
by a lifetime of isolation. That matter is scheduled for trial in September.

Whitmore has spent more time in “closed cell restriction,” the Louisiana 
prison term for what is effectively solitary confinement, than almost 
any other state prisoner, his attorneys say. Only Albert Woodfox, a 
member of the so-called “Angola 3” accused of killing a prison guard in 
1972, has been in solitary for longer.

In 1977, Whitmore was sentenced to life behind bars for the August 1973 
killing of former Zachary Mayor Marshall Bond, a crime Whitmore 
maintains he did not commit. A separate court is considering his request 
for a new trial.

Mary Baker, who is Bond’s stepdaughter, declined to comment for this story.

When Whitmore was transferred to Angola in 1978, he was immediately 
assigned to his solitary cell. His lawyers said documents show the 
initial reason for this level of incarceration was his length of 
sentence, although they are unsure why that was a criterion or if it’s 
still one today. With the exception of less than two years, Whitmore has 
stayed there ever since.

The decades of confinement have taken a physical, mental and emotional 
toll, he said in a written Q&A interview with the LSU team that was 
facilitated by his attorneys.

“The worst part of being in solitary is the isolation, not being able to 
interact with others and not being allowed to earn my GED nor learn a 
skilled trade,” Whitmore said. He claims his eyesight is “destroyed” and 
his hypertension got worse as a result of his prolonged confinement.

Whitmore said his greatest challenge is maintaining mental stability in 
such a small space. With a toilet and sink on the back wall and a bunk 
on the sidewall, he is left with 12 square feet of floor space in which 
to move around.

The front of his cell has bars. A bookshelf on the wall can hold the six 
books he is allowed at any given time. The lighting is poor, and even 
though he has a ventilation duct, he says it is no match for the 
Louisiana heat and the stench from the toilet.

“The upside, if you can call it that, is that during the humid Louisiana 
summer months, I can lie on the floor to stay cool without being stepped 
on and I don’t have to share the toilet with 97 other dudes,” he said.

He can communicate with other inmates by talking out loud from his cell 
or during his hour a day out on the tier.

Whitmore said he is allowed one visit per month. It used to be two until 
officers decided it was “too much paperwork.” The visitor list is 
limited to 10 immediate family members, a restriction not made on 
prisoners in general population.

Cain told the LSU team in October that based on Whitmore’s telephone 
calls, which are monitored by prison officials, he has not made the 
“right changes” to be released from his restricted tier. Whitmore is 
aware that prison officials monitor his calls.

Cain would not clarify what those “right changes” might be, nor would he 
confirm whether Whitmore’s confinement had to do with a Black Panther 
affiliation. Whitmore said Cain has not met with him to discuss his 
restricted situation.

There are 136 “closed cell restriction” beds at three Louisiana prisons, 
out of 18,676 beds total, according to Pam Laborde, communications 
director for the state Department of Corrections.

Laborde did not answer questions about whether other inmates kept on 
these tiers — at Angola and two other prisons — are being held there 
because of alleged supremacist views. In early March, Laborde said the 
agency can’t comment about Whitmore’s confinement because of the litigation.

“LSP (Louisiana State Prisons) follows appropriate correctional practice 
in maintaining offender Whitmore’s current housing in CCR, which is a 
non-punitive housing area,” Laborde said in a brief statement. 
“Whitmore’s assignment is reviewed every 90 days.”

The Black Panther Party was an African-American political action group 
founded in California in 1966 with the initial purpose of scrutinizing 
police and preventing police brutality. It grew to prominence in the 
late 1960s and, according to the FBI, developed into a Marxist 
revolutionary group.

The FBI defined the Black Panthers as a black extremist organization 
that “advocated the use of violence and guerilla tactics to overthrow 
the U.S. government.” In 1969, then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover named 
the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of 
the country.”

But others see the Black Panthers as a more nuanced organization, 
involved in trying to improve black neighborhoods and offering social 
programs.

Billy X. Jennings, a Black Panther Party historian and former member, 
disagreed with the extremist tag and argued the FBI is the “least 
reliable source” of information. In a phone interview from his 
California home, Jennings said the Panthers called for better housing, 
employment and education for the black community, as well as an end to 
police brutality.

The Black Panther Party ended around 1980, Jennings said. He heads an 
organization of former members, called It’s About Time, to keep its 
legacy alive through a website and events.

A more recent group, the New Black Panther party formed in Texas in 
1989, does claim a black separatist ideology. The Southern Poverty Law 
Center describes the New Black Panther Party as “virulently racist and 
anti-Semitic” and “believes black Americans should have their own nation.”

Whitmore said through his lawyers that he does not identify with the New 
Black Panthers and has never had an affiliation with it. The original 
Black Panthers have rejected the new group and oppose use of the Panther 
name.

Jennings said he has visited Whitmore and maintains communication with 
him, while spreading his story to the public.

“Whitmore’s in the hole because he was a Panther,” Jennings said. “The 
BPP doesn’t exist anymore. Zulu is 60 years old. What threat can he be? 
Zulu isn’t violent. He was just part of a group Burl Cain doesn’t like. 
Cain (interjects his) personal opinion over what is right and what is 
fair. What’s he scared of?”

Cain disputed that Whitmore is kept in solitary confinement, emphasizing 
that the Department of Corrections calls the tier he is housed on 
“closed cell restriction,” and it is not a disciplinary cellblock. CCR 
inmates are allowed out of their cells, but not out of the cellblock, 
for one hour each day to shower, among other things. Each week they get 
three hours of exercise in a fenced-in area outdoors.

Cain compared Whitmore’s cell to those on death row and said the front 
of the cell has bars so he can speak to guards and other inmates, who 
remain out of sight to the left and right of him on the tier.

But the federal courts in the Woodfox case have found that this type of 
confinement is the effective equivalent of solitary. The 5th U.S. 
Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in one decision that it was “difficult, 
if not impossible, to imagine circumstances more ‘extraordinary’ than 
nearly four decades in solitary confinement.”

Call it what you like, Whitmore’s attorneys argue, extended lockdown has 
caused their client mental and physical suffering.

“He’s kept like a dog in a cage,” Rutherford said. “These are abhorrent 
conditions.”

Whitmore has had few disciplinary infractions while at Angola. But he 
once tried to escape — about 28 years ago — less than two years after he 
was reclassified into the general population. He quickly was captured 
and returned to CCR. In an affidavit filed in federal court, Whitmore 
noted that the inmate he escaped with was returned to general population 
after nine months on lockdown.

A group of other Angola prisoners — Woodfox, Robert King and Herman 
Wallace, known as the “Angola 3” — have gained some national renown for 
their decades in solitary.

All three were involved in the formation of the Angola chapter of the 
Black Panthers in the late 1970s. Woodfox and Wallace were convicted of 
the 1972 murder of a prison guard. King was convicted of a 1973 murder 
of an inmate in an unrelated case.

King’s conviction was overturned and he was released in 2001. Wallace 
was also freed after he was granted a new trial, but he died days after 
his 2013 release. Woodfox — Louisiana’s longest-serving inmate in 
solitary confinement — remains behind bars at Wade Correctional Center 
in Homer, but he may soon be freed.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November upheld a federal 
district court’s decision to overturn Woodfox’s conviction due to racial 
bias in the grand jury’s foreperson selection process.

Woodfox’s lawyers are pushing to have Woodfox, 67, released on bail 
while awaiting his third trial.

Whitmore became a Black Panther after he was put on the same tier as 
Woodfox and the others, crediting them with his eduction while in prison.

He could neither read nor write when he was initially arrested but began 
learning with the help of another jail inmate and a Bible. That 
continued when he went to Angola, he said.

“The BPP made a huge contribution during the black movement for 
equality, worked to put an end to police murder and brutality and to 
implement social programs in the black community,” Whitmore said. “I 
felt an extra sense of pride being a part of this revolutionary 
organization.”

Solitary also altered Whitmore’s spiritual life. Despite his Baptist 
upbringing, he converted to Islam in 1983 because, he said, it gave him 
what he needed “to withstand the madness of Angola.”

His sister, Sheila Whitmore, of Baker, said the visitation restrictions 
make it hard for her brother to maintain connections with his family, 
including his son and granddaughter. “It’s getting stricter for us to 
visit with him,” she said. “They got it so crazy that they just try to 
discourage you from visiting.”

LSU graduate students Amber Smith and Jalisa Jones and senior Jose 
Bastidas also contributed to this report.



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