[Pnews] Angola inmate, Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, argues that three decades in solitary is unconstitutional punishment
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 11 15:55:13 EDT 2015
Angola inmate argues that three decades in solitary is
Whitmore, serving life in 1973 killing, filed lawsuit against warden
Annie Ourso and Julie Hebert| Special to The Advocate
May 11, 2015
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
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
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
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
But others see the Black Panthers as a more nuanced organization,
involved in trying to improve black neighborhoods and offering social
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
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
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
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
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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