This interview with former Black Panther Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore by artist Carrie Reichardt took place in 2008, when Obama was president, and was published in Idler issue 42.
Kenny Whitmore has been in Angola State Penitentiary for 45 years. He was sent to prison for the murder of former Zachary Mayor Marshall Bond. His defense claims that the then District Attorney’s handling of the case was tinged with racial bias, and that the DA had links with the Klu Klux Klan.
“Mr. Whitmore is an innocent man, wrongfully incarcerated for the last 40 years by the state of Louisiana for a crime he did not commit,” said Emily Posner, one of his attorneys, in 2015. “His conviction was the result of a prejudiced investigation, prosecutorial misconduct and withheld exculpatory evidence.”
In 2015, Zulu was moved out of solitary confinement and into the so-called “plantation”. His supporter group wrote:
“On Nov. 16, 2015, Zulu, who was then the prisoner longest held in solitary confinement after Albert Woodfox, was released to general population, transferred to a dormitory within the prison in Angola, Louisiana. After 37 and a half years of living in a 9-by-6-foot cell, Zulu now shares the dormitory with 94 other prisoners. Being as well known as he is, he has not had any problems.
“Zulu has a prison job where he is earning two cents an hour, as most of the prisoners do in Angola, or should we call it what it is, a mere two cents an hour as a modern-day slave on one of the largest plantations in America. But it has been reported that Zulu is in good health and in strong spirits as always.”
Black Panther Kenny ‘Zulu’ Whitmore has been locked up since 1975 in Angola, one of the most brutal prisons in the USA, also known as ‘the last slave plantation’. At the time this interview was carried out, he was in solitary confinement, in a 6x9ft cage, his home for the previous 30 years.
Carrie Reichardt is an artist and activist living in London. She has covered the entire outside walls of her house with ceramics and mosaics. Her home is called The Treatment Rooms – the UK’s only ceramic house of resistance.
The latest 40ft mural on the back of her house is to raise awareness of the plight of incarcerated Black Panthers. Carrie has been writing to Zulu for several years and is currently the spokesperson for the Free Zulu Campaign in the UK.
Zulu went into prison with a fourth-grade education and a speech impediment. He has not only educated himself for over thirty years, but has also helped others within the prison complex. Zulu is deeply resolute.
Here Zulu discusses with Carrie, life, liberty, being idle and how he still continues to smash the system.
Carrie Reichhardt: For a man who’s been held in solitary for more than three decades, you must have come up with some interesting ways to be idle. What are your preferred ways of passing the time?
Kenny Zulu Whitmore: I am in this cage for 23 hours a day, but I make good use of my time. In 1980, Robert King [released from Angola prison in 2001 after his conviction was overturned], Albert Woodfox [still in Angola though his conviction was overturned in September 2008] and I started an exercise routine where we used to get up at 3:30am. and work out for two hours six days a week. Even when we were separated we kept it up. To this day I still work out for an hour and a half six days a week.
After that I’ll catch the World News on NPR [National Public Radio] and/or meditate until breakfast, which comes between 6:30 and 7:30am. Then I might catch the local news on TV Baton Rouge.
At 8a.m. or thereafter I set up my stand-up desk in the cell – my locker on top of the table. I write and/or read until 4pm. If I am responding to my many supporters, I write sometimes until 7pm. Legal work will also pass the time.
I take short breaks throughout the day. I read a lot when time allows. My absolute favourite book is Native Son by Richard Wright. Right now I am reading Silent Gesture by Tommie Smith. He and John Carlos were two of the most courageous brothers in America to raise the black power salute on the world stage at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
I get one hour on the yard three times a week where I and other guys run behind the football for an hour.
In solitary confinement one must find something to keep the mind active or risk going insane, as I have witnessed more than I would have liked to. For me, everything I do is about self-discipline and continuing to educate myself.
CR: You recently spent more than a year in the dungeon of Camp J Disciplinary Unit; how did that compare with Closed Cell Restriction [CCR or solitary confinement, where Zulu has spent most of his time in prison]?
KZW: Well, Camp J is the worst disciplinary unit in the system here in Louisiana. While I was there, I smelled gas, Freeze Plus P [pepper spray] and mace as regularly as if it was air freshener. Early in the morning, the guards would gas someone at will. If someone passed out because of the heat, they would get gassed. If the lady bringing medication said you did or said something to her, they would spray you down like a cockroach and beat you.
You must wear an orange jumpsuit, and when any female comes on the tier, everyone must have it buttoned all the way up, summer or winter.
The food is some shit you wouldn’t give your dog. It is very poorly prepared, and you get a small amount. I lost thirty pounds in there.
CR: Does the disciplinary unit have a canteen?
KZW: Yes, once a week you can buy tuna, bread, chips, cookies, etc., but you are not allowed to have a plastic spoon or drinking cup in your cell without being written up for contraband, so you’ve nothing to use if you want to mix mayonnaise or mustard into your food. You can buy Kool Aid, but if you get caught with a spoon, sugar or a cup, you are sent to Level 1 to start all over [the disciplinary unit has different levels, which you slowly move up].
CR: Did they have Yard Call?
KZW: Yes, three times a week. You can only wear a T-shirt and shorts under the orange jumpsuit. You are fully restrained–waist chain, and leg irons. Only the leg irons are removed. During the winter months you are given a coat, the coat someone else has just run around the yard in, so I never wore one.
CR: What about people’s mental health?
KZW: Camp J disciplinary unit has a large number of mentally ill dudes. On the tier I was on, I was one cell from a guy who screamed and hollered and talked out loud all the time. The guards used to gas him and have the entire tier sneezing and coughing with our eyes burning. It was a crazy situation.
CR: Does the disciplinary unit allow visiting?
KZW: Yes, but very few people let their family and friends come because the visiting booth is like 4x10ft with a screen separating you; no water nor bathroom. You burn up in there during summer and freeze in winter. Though they have an air conditioner on the wall, it hardly ever works; like the heater.
CR: How is CCR, where you are now, different?
KZW: Here in CCR you have more political prisoners in this building, which houses 111 dudes. CCR is long-term. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 stayed in here from April 1972 to March 2008. Robert King did 29 years. I have been held captive here in CCR since 1978, except for a 14-month stay in general population. Then I took my physical freedom [escaped] in 1986. I was free for 24 hours. I guess it’s more than what others could expect.
In CCR you get three days of yard in a jumpsuit. All restraints are removed. You have your own clothing: three pairs of jeans, three blue shirts, three pairs of socks, three sweatsuits, two winter caps and tennies [trainers]. You get two contact visits per month. Five visitors can come in at a time. We do not have a GED [General Educational Development] program in CCR nor do they in any cell block.
The food is better prepared, but like all over the plantation, we do not get enough fresh vegetables. We get powdered potatoes, old corn and a green salad twice a year – at Thanksgiving and Christmas; fresh fruit once a year at Christmas. In the dormitory where my brothers of the A3, Herman and Albert, are being housed, they have an inmate club with a deli that sells fresh salads, fish and other stuff. This is how I get fresh vegetables. But like anywhere in Angola, you are in prison.
CR: What are your top tips for ‘smashing the system’?
KZW: It’s going to take a collective effort by you the people. You need to petition your legislators and politicians and DEMAND change. You have more power than you may realise. Smash the system by saying no to new prisons and yes to new schools. Here in the USA, more than two million people are incarcerated. The state of Louisiana Department of Corrections has a budget of nearly $700 million dollars to warehouse people for 40–50 years, with no sign of rehabilitation programmes. The American public is paying members of the pardon and parole boards up to $80,000 a year to deny people pardon and parole; voters need to make them put pardon and parole into practice. You hired the politicians – you are the employers; they the employees.
CR: How do you continue to fight the system from a 6x9ft cell?
KZW: I use my pen; I have made friends worldwide; I educate, educate and educate.
CR: What changes do you think there will be to the system with Barack Obama, a black man, in the White House?
KZW: By the American voters electing their first African-American to be commander-in-chief I truly hope it means that the country is finally ready to move out of the racist time-warp it has been stuck in for too many centuries, and we as a nation are ready to move forward.
On the criminal justice system, I think it would be unrealistic to think that Obama, after his first day in his new job on January 20, would go into the Oval Office, take his pen, and change a system that has been in place for the last 100 years. It ain’t going to happen.
Obama has a full plate with the financial crisis – a crisis that was created by multi-billion-dollar banks, investment houses and the largest companies in the world: Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, AIG. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has meant thousands of people have lost their homes. African-Americans were hit hard in this scam, and those homeless people are left holding a $700 billion bill to pay for the very motherfuckers who kicked them out of their homes. So Obama will first have to tackle the crisis that George W. Bush and his cronies created.
But I do think that during his second term we will begin to see some changes in the criminal justice system with his choice of attorney general and the possibility of his appointing two new justices to the US Supreme Court. But let’s wait and see.
CR: What do you think is the difference between Angola the slave plantation and Angola the prison?
KZW: The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery within the borders of the United States, but that didn’t include prison. The day it came into effect, prison became the new plantation – they legalised it. Angola the prison has basically the same rules to govern its slaves as did Angola the plantation. The only difference is the name changed from plantation to prison.
CR: Do you think that Obama really represents change?
KZW: I am like most African-Americans in this country – I want to believe Barack Obama represents change, because he knows first-hand of African suffering in this country. I think he’s bringing fresh ideas to the table, like sitting down with Iran’s head of state without pre-conditions, and de-privatising the student-loan system.
But I do not want to pre-judge him in the way I and my comrades Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the A3 have been. Albert recently won a new trial, and on November 12 , a federal judge ruled that he be released on bail pending re-trial. But Louisiana’s Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has pre-judged Albert to be a flight risk due to some unsubstantiated charges from 1967, and is blocking his release. So I won’t pre-judge Obama.
Ona Move. Free Zulu, A3 and Move 9
Write to: Kenny Zulu Whitmore, 86468 CCR, Upper C #11, LA State Prison, Angola, LA 70712 USA
See Carrie’s work here