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.