It is 100 degrees with 96 per cent humidity when I arrive in New Orleans. I have a gut feeling that
A full year after Hurricane Katrina, the city is a shambles, with fishing trawlers still on the shoulders of the highways, mattresses in trees, lives in tatters. You pass all of this on the way to Angola, estimated to be America's largest prison, and one of its most notorious.
For the past five years, I have been following the story of the "Angola Three". All three men were convicted of murder inside Angola Prison in the early 1970s, and all three professed their innocence. One was released in 2001 but the other two remain in solitary confinement, 34 years after their convictions.
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, who were in prison on unrelated robbery convictions, were convicted of the 1972 murder of a white prison guard inside a black dormitory at the prison. In separate trials, they were convicted by all-white juries, even though none of the physical evidence linked them to the crime, and all the witnesses against them were inmate "snitches" who were compensated handsomely for their testimonies - with promises of pardons, shortened sentences and, in one case, a pack of cigarettes a week for the rest of that inmate's sentence (which was life).
I have visited all three men repeatedly over the years, making the sultry trek through Louisiana's most rural back roads and into this odd place - a huge, 18,000-acre former slave plantation where, to this day, mostly black men work the fields under the watchful eye of armed white guards on horseback.
It is 100 degrees with 96 per cent humidity when I arrive in New Orleans. The reason I'm here is that Herman has his first hearing in three decades. A small band of activists and investigators has turned up evidence which may finally absolve him of the crime. After years of laborious work filing legal papers and waiting for the painfully slow process to play out (made slower by the State of Louisiana's energetic efforts to discredit Herman's legal team), we finally have an opportunity to present evidence that the prison administration and the state hid evidence that would have exonerated Herman and Albert.
The wheels of justice turn slowly enough in Louisiana as it is. I have a gut feeling that this hearing and visit aren't going to run smoothly. The hearing has already been moved from Baton Rouge - the state capital - back to Angola Prison, and then from one meeting room to the next. I have seen the prison administration be petty before - they have even gone so far as to throw me out of the jail when I was visiting the prisoners, and to ban my book A Revolution in Kindness from being sent to inmates (I was told it was "a threat to security").
City of survivors
The French Quarter of New Orleans looks a little worse for wear after the hurricane, but if I have learned anything about New Orleanians, it is that they are survivors. Albert and Herman both hail from this city, and have managed to survive three and a half decades in small, non-air-conditioned cells for 23 hours a day, seven days a week. And what strikes me about them both is that they refuse to allow anger or hatred to consume them.
Both are fully aware that they are in prison today - at almost 60 years old - because they dared to resist corruption and violence inside a notoriously brutal jail at a time when black people were supposed to "know their place". They had aligned themselves with the Black Panther movement and helped defend new young inmates from sexual predators, teaching them basic survival skills. They arranged for non-violent work stoppages and hunger strikes in order to win basic dignities. To the white establishment, that made them irritants, and also easy targets. A white prison guard turning up dead gave the authorities just the excuse they needed to lock the three men up for life in solitary confinement, where they couldn't organise other inmates.
The next day I'm told that the hearing has been postponed until 19 September. I'm in a quandary - I want to be there when Herman gets his day in court. But how can I cancel a documentary for Finnish TV, having my face photographed for the Body Shop, and opening an exhibition about prostitution in London?