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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. 36 years - that is the longest time anyone is known to have spent in solitary confinement in the United States. It was the fate of two men in Louisiana's Angola Prison. They were convicted of the brutal murder in 1972 of a young corrections officer at a time when racism and violence were tearing the prison apart.

But even after all these years, there are questions about whether the two men committed the crime. NPRs Laura Sullivan has spent months looking into the killing of Corrections Officer Brent Miller and its aftermath. And here is the first of her three reports from Angola Prison.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Back in 1972, Brent Miller was young and popular. When he was just 23, he died in a pool of his own blood, stabbed through the chest with a lawnmower blade. In the almost 40 years since, those are about the only details of the crime anyone can agree on. Two men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, were convicted. But all these years later, the murder seems even more unsettled and elusive than it did then. Most of the people who were there are dead. Most of the people there now seem to want to bury this case in a place no one will find it.

Mr. BURL CAIN (Warden, Angola Prison): We don't talk about those, just can't do it, you know, really. That's not the deal.

SULLIVAN: Angola's warden, Burl Cain, and many other former and current officials told me they will never talk about what happened that early April morning in 1972. But Brent Miller's death hangs in the air here like the Spanish moss. The prison firing range is named after him. His picture hangs at the front of the prison museum. And until recently, every warden of this prison has stamped a paper every 90 days keeping two men in solitary confinement. Every 90 days, a warden did this for 36 years. To understand how this is possible, you first have to understand Angola.

Ms. MELODY SPRAGG (Hospice Coordinator, Angola Prison): Small town America, that's exactly what you have.

SULLIVAN: Melody Spragg is a hospice coordinator at Angola and an unofficial tour guide. She's standing inside the prison on a flawlessly manicured stretch of lawn surrounded by hundreds of perfectly painted homes. It's like no other prison in the country. This is where Angola's correctional officers live. It's where Brent Miller lived, where he was born. They call it B-line.

Ms. SPRAGG: Trees, we've got a park for the residents of B-line, for their children to play in, skateboard rink area over there. We have a pool over here. We have a family rec center here. You know, you just look around. There's not really anything that would make you think you're in a maximum security prison.

SULLIVAN: There might be one thing, the inmates. All day long, men in white uniforms are cutting grass, painting houses, planting gardens free of cost to the officers, just like they have for almost a century.

Mr. RICKY HAWTHORNE (Inmate, Angola Prison): Orange and yellow are (unintelligible) and I don't know the name of these yet.

SULLIVAN: Inmate Ricky Hawthorne answers questions with a snappy yes, sir, the way all inmates here seem to. He's watering the same bed of flowers he's already watered twice today.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: They brought these over here and told me to just keep them watered, and they would grow and be beautiful.

SULLIVAN: Down the road, five or six inmates are sitting under a tent waiting to wash officer's cars. The wardens and deputy wardens have what they call House Boys, inmates who cook for their families and clean their homes. When there's a chore to do, officers just pull an inmate from one of the prison camps. Back when Brent Miller was just a boy playing football in these streets with his brothers, Dora Rabalais moved into a house just up the street.

Ms. DORA RABALAIS: Angola is home to me.

SULLIVAN: Like most families, Rabalias' son and grandson now work at the prison, where she and her husband worked for decades. In a place so remote, it's hard to know what's nepotism if there's no one else to hire.

Ms. RABALAIS: It's a family - a family of people who work together, play together, pray together, and even have their own little family fights just like any other family would have.

SULLIVAN: Here at Angola, the officers aren't called officers or even guards. They're called Freemen, and their prison is the size of Manhattan. Just down the road is acre after acre of corn, soybeans and cotton. In the distance on this day, 100 black men are in the field bent over picking tomatoes. A single white officer on a horse sits above them, a shotgun in his lap. And just past these fields, hovering next to this idyllic little neighborhood where Brent Miller grew up, are the prison dorms where he went to work, the dorms where he died when Angola was named the bloodiest prison in America.

Mr. LLOYD HOYLE (Deputy Warden, Angola Prison): I tell you, that was appalling. I wasn't even working there, and I almost shed tears because of the conditions of that prison. You would not believe it.

SULLIVAN: Back then, Lloyd Hoyle, a prison warden from Iowa, became deputy warden of Angola. He still remembers when Warden Murray Henderson asked him to come look at the job.

Mr. HOYLE: I looked at it, and I just said, Murray, there's nothing you could do to this prison, nothing, that wouldn't be an improvement.

SULLIVAN: Hoyle says there were 200 armed convict guards who abused and tortured the inmates. Many of the paid guards were illiterate. There was rampant rape, a prisoner slave trade. Inmates were so afraid of stabbings they slept with JC Penny catalogs tied to their chest.

Mr. WILBERT RIDEAU (Inmate and Former Editor, The Angolite): Angola was a lawless jungle.

SULLIVAN: Wilbert Rideau, an inmate at the time and former editor of the prison newspaper, kept a tally.

Mr. RIDEAU: Ah, let's see.

SULLIVAN: He pulls out an old copy of the paper.

Mr. RIDEAU: In 1971, there were 82 stabbings of inmates, three of them died. In 1972, there were 52 stabbings, but eight of them died. And in 1973, you had 137 stabbings, and 13 inmates died. It was getting progressively worse.

SULLIVAN: To keep order, there were fewer than 300 correctional officers, men like Bert Dixon.

Mr. BERT DIXON (Correctional Officer, Angola Prison): It was rough, inmates killing inmates. Yes, it was bad. We didn't have the personnel they have now to be able to watch the inmates and be with them all the time. The inmates were on their own.

SULLIVAN: With so little to lose, an inmate tried to escape almost every day, running fast and furiously from the cotton fields. Dixon and his father ran the bloodhounds through the woods, chasing all of them down.

Mr. DIXON: Back in those days, when an inmate escaped, we didn't come back until we caught him. I've actually gone to sleepwalking at night, I'd be so tired.

SULLIVAN: Within the prison, a war was brewing between the inmates and the guards for control. Years of racial and political turmoil were boiling over. Many inmates were turning to radical political movements and, in some cases, violence. Just one day before Brent Miller was killed, a group of inmates attacked a guard shack with a fire bomb, injuring an officer.

Angola officials would not allow me to interview inmates who were at Angola in 1972, but those I did talk to, on the condition I not give their names, say they remember the two men convicted of Miller's murder, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. At the time, they were both serving 50 years, Woodfox for armed robbery, Wallace for bank robbery.

Inmates say they used to hold meetings behind the dorms saying they were starting a Black Panther chapter from within the prison. Tall, lean, and muscular, they walked around wearing black berets, talking about revolution in a segregated, entirely white-run, southern prison. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are still here at Angola. It's just that none of these inmates have seen them in 36 years, not since Brent Miller was murdered on the floor of a prison dorm. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, we continue our report from Angola Prison. We'll hear about the flawed investigation into Brent Miller's murder and how a questionable witness drove the prosecution. At our website, you can see historical photos of Angola Prison and its inmates. Those are at npr.org.

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