40 years of solitary confinement
February 27, 2013
Albert Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for 40 years, most of that time locked up in the notorious maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary known as "Angola." This week, after his lawyers spent six years arguing that racial bias tainted the grand-jury selection in Woodfox's prosecution, federal Judge James Brady, presiding in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, agreed. "Accordingly, Woodfox's habeas relief is GRANTED," ordered Brady, compelling the state of Louisiana to release Woodfox. This is the third time his conviction has been overturned. Nevertheless, Woodfox remains imprisoned. Those close to the case expect the state of Louisiana, under the direction of Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell, to appeal again, as the state has successfully done in the past, seeking to keep Woodfox in solitary confinement, in conditions that Amnesty International says "can only be described as cruel, inhuman and degrading."
Woodfox is one of the "Angola 3." Angola, the sprawling prison complex with 5,000 inmates and 1,800 employees, is in rural Louisiana on the site of a former slave plantation. It gets its name from the country of origin of many of those slaves. It still exists as a forced-labor camp, with prisoners toiling in fields of cotton and sugar cane, watched over by shotgun-wielding guards on horseback. Woodfox and fellow inmate Herman Wallace were in Angola for lesser crimes when implicated in the prison murder of a guard in 1972. Woodfox and Wallace founded the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1971, and were engaged in organizing against segregation, inhumane working conditions and the systemic rape and sexual slavery inflicted on many imprisoned in Louisiana's Angola.
"Herman and Albert and other folks recognized the violation of human rights in prison, and they were trying to achieve a better prison and living conditions," Robert King told me last year. "And as a result of that, they were targeted." King is the third member of the Angola 3, and the only one among them to have finally won his freedom, in 2001.
King went on: "There is no rationale why they should be held in solitary confinement — or, for that matter, in prison. This is a double whammy. We are dealing with a double whammy here. We are not just focusing on Herman's and Albert's civil- or human-rights violation, but there is question also as to whether or not they committed this crime. All the evidence has been undermined in this case." Since his release, King has been fighting for justice for Wallace and Woodfox, traveling around the U.S. and to 20 countries, as well as addressing the European Parliament.
The devastating psychological impacts of long-term solitary confinement are well-documented. Solitary also limits access to exercise, creating a cascade of health complications. The Center for Constitutional Rights is challenging the use of solitary confinement in California prisons, writing: "Ever since solitary confinement came into existence, it has been used as a tool of repression. While it is justified by corrections officials as necessary to protect prisoners and guards from violent superpredators, all too often it is imposed on individuals, particularly prisoners of color, who threaten prison administrations in an altogether different way."
In a recorded phone conversation from Angola, Herman Wallace explained: "Where we stay, we're usually in the cell for 23 hours, and an hour out. I'm not 'out.' I may come out of the hole here, but I'm still locked up on that unit. I'm locked up. I can't get around that. Anywhere I go, I have to be in chains. Chains have become a part of my existence. And that's one of the things that people have to fully understand. But understanding it is one thing, but experiencing it is quite another."
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Despite the decades in solitary confinement, Woodfox remains strong. As he said over a prison pay phone in one of the documentaries about the case, "In the Land of the Free": "If a cause is just noble enough, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. And I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. So therefore, they could never break me. They might bend me a little bit, they might cause me a lot of pain. They might even take my life. But they will never be able to break me."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears in The Union.