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James Rucker

James Rucker

Posted: December 17, 2008 11:55 AM

"Reform," Bobby Jindal Style


We may be on the brink of inaugurating a Black president, but the miscarriage of justice unfolding in Louisiana with the case of the Angola 3 tells a different story about race, power and accountability in our criminal justice system. At the top of the food chain is self-styled reformer and the GOP's supposed answer to Obama, Governor Bobby Jindal.

Albert Woodfox has spent the last 36 years in solitary confinement -- 23 out of 24 hours each day in a 6×9 cell -- for the murder of a white prison guard, a crime he didn't commit.

Despite increasing evidence of Woodfox's innocence, the State of Louisiana is digging in its heels. They've pushed back against a federal judge who has overturned Woodfox's conviction and ordered his release. The reason is becoming crystal clear: It's not because they believe that Woodfox or the other two people referred to as the "Angola 3" murdered anyone. It's because the three men were organizing within the prison for better conditions, an end to sexual abuses, and the fair treatment of inmates. Apparently, in Louisiana, seeking justice means you deserve to be framed for murder and locked away forever.

James "Buddy" Caldwell, the state's Attorney General, has led the state's fight and Burl Cain, the warden at Angola, is acting as Caldwell's henchman. Ultimately, it's Governor Bobby Jindal who is giving them cover despite being presented with all the facts and being asked repeatedly to intervene. So much for the promise of Jindal and his self-description as a "reformer."

A look at recent proceedings shows that the desire to keep Woodfox behind bars has nothing to do with whether Woodfox is guilty or innocent. Cain has made it clear that he doesn't care. Cain wants him behind bars for no reason other than the fact that Woodfox has been a force for reform from within the prison walls. Says Cain, "The thing about him is that he wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize. He wants to be defiant." Cain has said that even if he knew Woodfox hadn't killed the guard, he would still want the man isolated. "I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates," Cain said. It's not that Woodfox is dangerous. It's that he is unrepentant in organizing inmates to achieve a basic sense of decency and livable conditions.

Several months before Judge James Brady overturned Woodfox's conviction, more than 25,000 ColorOfChange.org members appealed to Governor Jindal to get involved. The head of the state legislature's judiciary committee, Cedric Richmond, delivered the petitions to Governor Jindal and requested he intervene. Around the same time, Congressman John Conyers, chair of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, met with both Woodfox and Herman Wallace (one of the other Angola 3) and has publicly called for intervention. Jindal's response has been utter silence.

In recent weeks, as pressure has mounted for Woodfox to be released, Caldwell, the Attorney General, has gone deeper in attempting to demonize Woodfox. He has taken to publicly referring to Woodfox as a "serial rapist," a completely unsubstantiated claim. Once bail was ordered and it was expected that Woodfox would be released, Caldwell's office clandestinely contacted members of the gated community where Woodfox was supposed to live, telling them that a murderer would soon be living among them. Woodfox had been planning to live with his niece. She and her family have now been subject to harassment, and the option of Woodfox living with her has been made virtually impossible.

We've seen unequal and unfair justice before in Louisiana. We can just look back at the case of the Jena 6 a year and a half ago. In that case, six black boys were charged with attempted murder at the hands of a District Attorney who threatened that he could "take away [the students'] lives with a stroke of [his] pen." The threat followed black students protesting the hanging of a noose above a "white tree" at their school, with the charges coming after a racially-charged fight characterized by some as a school-yard fight, where the victim was white.

In the case of the Jena 6, there was an outcry from across the country, culminating in a march of more than 20,000 in the town of Jena. While leaders across the country decried the injustice in Jena, surprisingly, Jindal called those protesting "outside agitators" -- a phrase that echoed racist Southerners' response to Civil Rights-era organizing efforts.

While Governor Jindal claims to be a reformer and has his eyes on the White House, his silence in the Angola 3 case and his language around the case of the Jena 6 tell a different story. His idea of "reform" seems more like an empty slogan and catchy rhetoric than something he's willing to put into practice. Perhaps it's time to confront Jindal and ask him what his idea of reform looks like.