After over three decades in isolation, inmate Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore is acclimating to his new life in the general prison population
By Anthony Settipani
The Medill Justice Project
After more than 36 years in solitary confinement, deprived of virtually all human contact, suffering from what he described as a constellation of muscle atrophy, cardiovascular hypertension and deteriorating vision caused by a lack of light and visual stimulation in his stifling cell, Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore was finally released into the general prison population with this aspiration: He just wants to design T-shirts.
So goes the remarkable dissonance for a prisoner at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary—a former slave plantation known as Angola—who just finished one of the longest stints in solitary confinement in the United States. Whitmore, the subject of an in-depth investigation by The Medill Justice Project, was recently moved from isolation—what the prison calls “closed cell restriction”—into its J-Bass dormitory, which houses about 95 prisoners. He’s working toward his GED and learning new skills like hobby craft and leather working.
Whitmore’s attorney, Michelle Rutherford, declined to make him available for comment. But word of his release from solitary has begun to reach Whitmore’s family and friends—and supporters throughout the world—who have been outraged that he has been held in isolation for decades when other nations consider it a form of torture.
“He’s adjusting very well,” said Sheila, one of Whitmore’s sisters. She said the prison provided her family few opportunities to visit, and occasionally those they did have would be unexpectedly canceled with little or no notice.
“Sometimes we’d come and, you know, you’ve got a riot or something,” she said, but now she’s hopeful for her brother.
“He’s more happy,” she said. “He’s working hard. Everything is better for him since he’s gotten out.”
Maria Hinds, a New Orleans graphic designer and close friend of Whitmore’s, recalled the pride in his voice as he told her he had made belts and sold them at a booth at the well-known Angola prison rodeo, but Hinds said there’s more to his creative ambitions.
“He’s quite anxious to do T-Shirt design,” she said. “He’s always, always wanted to open up a T-shirt shop.”
Rutherford, his attorney, said the next step for Whitmore, who maintains his innocence involving a murder and a separate armed robbery, is to push forward with his attempt to be set free.
Whitmore’s attorneys recently filed for post-conviction relief in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, challenging his conviction in the case of a 1975 armed robbery of a shoe store.
According to the court filing, a key witness to the crime identified a different man as the assailant, though Whitmore was included in the police lineup. Whitmore’s court filing also said that witness described “Mr. Whitmore, as ‘a colored male, in his early twenties, 5’10’’, 165 pounds, dark complexion, hair, completely black,’” while, in fact, “Mr. Whitmore is approximately 5’6’’ and weighed approximately 135 pounds in 1975.” Both of these facts, Whitmore’s attorneys said, were withheld from his defense counsel.
This post-conviction filing joins a second filed in July 2014 that is pending in East Baton Rouge, which asserts the state withheld from Whitmore’s attorneys physical evidence, other possible murder weapons, alternative suspects, crime lab reports analyses and key information about the victim in a separate crime, the murder of the former mayor of Zachary, Louisiana. Whitmore was being held in prison, accused of the shoe-store robbery, when he was implicated in the former mayor’s murder.
“Individually and cumulatively, these constitutional violations produced a verdict unworthy of confidence,” Whitmore’s attorneys wrote in the 2014 filing. “Each of Mr. Whitmore’s post-conviction claims standing alone justifies vacating his conviction.”
During his time in solitary confinement, Whitmore developed relationships with other cellmates in isolation, including the Angola 3, men who gained international support among those who said they had been wrongfully convicted of murder. Through the Angola 3, Whitmore became a member of the prison chapter of the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary socialist organization that rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s.
“In many ways, the very things they were put in solitary for, their political beliefs, was what sustained them throughout the years,” said Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch, a web-based watchdog group that investigates and disseminates information about solitary confinement.
Carrie Reichardt, a London-based potter who describes herself as a “craftivist,” said she met Whitmore through her correspondence with Angola 3 member Herman Wallace.
“Herman wrote to me, and said that there’s a brother in the cell next to him who’s also a Black Panther,” said Reichardt, explaining that Wallace also sent letters on Whitmore’s behalf to other activists. “He wrote to them and asked them to try and form a group, which we kind of did in our own kind of way. There’s people working in the Netherlands and people in Holland, all trying to promote his case.”
To raise awareness about Whitmore’s plight, Reichardt said she made a ceramic-tiled taxi in his honor. Completed last July, Reichardt’s “Zulu Voodoo Liberation Taxi” has been displayed at the Glastonbury, BoomTown and Shambala arts festivals in the United Kingdom, among others.
“We took it, drove it around, used it as a way of engaging people, and letting them know about Zulu’s case,” Reichardt said.
“The thing is, if you have a beautiful mosaic’d car, people come up to you and they talk about it, and they ask about it,” she said. “A dialogue starts to happen.”
While Whitmore isn’t available for comment, this much is known about his release from isolation: For the first time since 1986, he gazed at the moon and stars and marveled.