ANGOLA, La. — A man who has spent 28 straight years in solitary confinement—one of the longest stints in a U.S. prison—may soon be released into the general inmate population.
In an exclusive interview Saturday outside the gates of the largest prison in America, Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Penitentiary said he is prepared to take Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore out of what is known as closed cell restriction if the inmate, who is 59 years old, no longer represents a safety risk.
“We will get him out,” Cain said. He added, “We’d rather him out. I need his cell. I’ve got some young people, predators, that need to be in that cell. When I can conclude he’s not going to cause me the blues, then he can come out of the cell.”
The warden’s remarks came as a result of an impromptu interview with students of The Medill Justice Project, which is investigating Whitmore’s case and the issue of solitary confinement.
Cain, who oversees a prison of more than 6,000 inmates, said he would personally meet with Whitmore, who was convicted of murder nearly 40 years ago, in the next two weeks to discuss the matter. If Cain, a devout Christian who talks about inmates’ moral rehabilitation, is convinced that Whitmore isn’t a threat, he said he will transfer the inmate in a matter of months. But first, Cain said he would monitor Whitmore’s letters and telephone calls to see if the prisoner has sincerely changed.
Last year, Whitmore filed by pen a federal suit in Baton Rouge against the warden and other prison officials, claiming his imprisonment in solitary confinement violated his constitutional rights, including the Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.
Whitmore has spent a total of 35 years in solitary confinement; he said he suffers from vision damage, hypertension and other ailments, which he attributes to his confinement, 23 hours a day, in a cell that he describes as a 6-foot by 9-foot space. Whitmore also said he is deprived of most human interaction and given no educational or training opportunities. The prison declined to give The Medill Justice Project access to the closed cell restriction unit.
The warden said he is sympathetic toward Whitmore. “He can’t be involved in skills and trades and so forth where he’s living, and he needs to have that part of his life,” he said.
Cain said he wasn’t concerned about Whitmore’s federal suit. Prisoners “file suits all the time; that’s not really important to us,” he said. “And that doesn’t keep him in the cell. You know, I’ve got inmates that sue me every day, and I don’t lock up the ones that sue me.”
What Cain said he was concerned about is Whitmore’s longstanding affiliation with the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party, a black revolutionary socialist organization that grew to prominence in the 1960s. Whitmore tried to escape in 1986, which also made him a security risk. Cain said Whitmore has the right to hold his political beliefs—as he himself does—but he expressed concern that Whitmore could spread his beliefs in the prison, sparking violence among inmates.
“The Black Panther Party advocates violence and racism—I’m not going to let anybody walk around advocating violence and racism,” Cain said.
The warden also noted that Whitmore’s confinement could protect him from younger prisoners trying to make a name for themselves by attacking a high-profile inmate. Whitmore is supported by various advocacy groups around the world, including in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which have created T-shirts and other merchandise with Whitmore’s likeness to help support his cause.
Whitmore calls himself a “political prisoner.”
His attorney, Emily Posner, who is coordinating efforts to reinvestigate Whitmore’s conviction, said in a prepared statement, “It is not surprising that Warden Cain has now affirmed that the torture that Zulu has endured for the last 28 years is a direct result of the BPP’s legacy.”
Michelle Rutherford, Whitmore’s attorney in his federal suit, said in a prepared response, “Warden Cain’s statement confirms the allegations Mr. Whitmore makes in his civil rights suit: he has been held in a 9 by 6 foot cell for over 35 years because of his political beliefs, not because of any demonstrated violent or disruptive behavior.”
Officials with the Black Panther Party could not be reached for comment.
Cain’s position on Whitmore reflects the warden’s efforts to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement. Recently, Cain said he released 16 inmates to the general prison population on a trial basis. But one of the inmates stabbed another prisoner, and Cain expressed disappointment that the other inmates didn’t step in.
That’s why Cain said that while he is interested in removing inmates from what’s also known as extended lockdown, he is hesitant to take risks with inmates’ lives.
“I can’t afford to gamble; I can’t afford to lose,” Cain said. “It’s a little bit different because I’m dealing with human lives.”
The Louisiana warden is among other prison leaders across the country who are reconsidering the use of solitary confinement as some lawmakers have begun to scrutinize the practice.
Whitmore was sentenced to life at Angola in 1977 for second-degree murder following the 1975 murder of former Zachary, La., mayor, Marshall Bond.
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This story was reported by Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project.