Activist calls for increased prison reform

Ruby Wallau/Daily
Robert King, a member of the Angola three, shares his story of prison time in the Rackham Amphitheater on Friday. Buy this photo

By Aaron Guggenheim, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 3, 2013

Late Friday evening, Robert King, a former member of the Black Panther Party, spoke to a crowded room in Rackham Auditorium on what he said are the inequities of the American criminal justice system and the prison-industrial complex.

King, weathered and soft-spoken, has spent much of his life in the corrections system, 29 in solitary confinement.

To speak about prison reform, he has traveled to 20 different countries and 47 states to speak about prison reform. He also has spoken about the need to release Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, both of whom are still being held in an Angola in solitary confinement after 36 years for the alleged murder of a prison guard. Woodfox, Wallace and King, the subjects of several documentaries, are collectively known as the Angola Three.

King said that his experience growing up in New Orleans in the 1950s was an experience in systematic racism.

“I grew up in a culture or society where some people where considered second-class citizens,” King said. “Every person of color was considered a suspect when a crime was committed.”

As a black 22-year-old with time served, King became the suspect for a local robbery soon after release from a stint in prison. Despite not matching the description of the perpetrator, he was arrested and eventually sentenced to 35 years in prison.

“I felt that the system, to put it in a six-letter word, was rotten,” King said. “I began to see that it was time to take matters into my own hands … I was not against the system, the system was against me.”

King escaped from prison once and when he was recaptured, King said he began his involvement with the Black Panther Party because it advocated for reform of the criminal justice system and for unequivocal equal treatment of black people.

Reflecting on his time in Angola, King said the prison system was comparable to slavery in the manner in which it dehumanized him and other inmates.

“I don’t think people really understand the impact of prisons … there is a little bit of madness in prison,” he said. “All parts of prison demoralize and dehumanize.”

King said he survived prison because he became politicized on the topic of prison reform and strove not to let the prison system impact his mental health as it did for so many others in solitary confinement.

“I was impacted by Angola. I must admit that everybody was to some degree,” he said. “(But) I was determined not to let it impact me the way it impacted other people.”

Law School student Gabe Newland, symposium director for the Michigan Journal of Race and Law, helped organize the event with student group Human Rights Through Education. The event was a prelude to a symposium on solitary confinement that was held Saturday.

Newland said King was brought to speak because of the growing discussion in the prison-reform movement on how solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. He added that many states are coming around to eliminating solitary confinement as a cost-saving measure.

“(We wanted) to bring together people who look at this problem from different angles,” Newland said.

Reform of the prison system is something that will benefit society as a whole, he added.

“I think all of us have a stake in what’s going on here,” Newland said. “What we do to people who we are punishing for crimes says a lot about who we are as a society.”

LSA junior Ciarra Ross said she was appreciative of the event because of how it fit in with the current LSA theme semester “Understanding Race.”

“It was definitely necessary … I definitely appreciate it quite a bit,” Ross said.

Ross said she agreed with King’s description of the prison system as a continuation of slavery.

“Slavery has just taken a new form and this is a reality that slavery still exists.”