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40 Years in Solitary Confinement: US 'Pushing Boundaries of Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment'

Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace have been in solitary in Angola Prison since 1972

- Common Dreams staff

Today marks the dark anniversary of 40 years of solitary confinement of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace at Angola Prison in Louisiana.

Herman Wallace, left, and Albert Woodfox in Angola prison in Louisiana. Amnesty International will hand over a 65,000-signature petition to Louisiana Governor Jindal today demanding an end to Woodfox and Wallace's solitary confinement.

The 40-year isolated incarceration of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace "pushes the boundaries of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and flies in the face of international standards to which the US is a party,” stated Everette Harvey Thompson, Southern Office Regional Director of Amnesty International USA.

Describing the cell he's lived in for 40 years, Herman Wallace says, "I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door."

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The Guardian: Forty years in solitary: two men mark sombre anniversary in Louisiana prison

"I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door," Herman Wallace says as he describes the cell in which he has lived for the past 40 years. "If I turn an about-face, I'm going to bump into something. I'm used to it, and that's one of the bad things about it."

On Tuesday, Wallace and his friend Albert Woodfox will mark one of the more unusual, and shameful, anniversaries in American penal history. Forty years ago to the day, they were put into solitary confinement in Louisiana's notorious Angola jail. They have been there ever since.

They have spent 23 hours of every one of the past 14,610 days locked in their single-occupancy 9ft-by-6ft cells. Each cell, Amnesty International records, has a toilet, a mattress, sheets, a blanket, pillow and a small bench attached to the wall. Their contact with the world outside the windowless room is limited to the occasional visit and telephone call, "exercise" three times a week in a caged concrete yard, and letters that are opened and read by prison guards. [...]

Wallace, Woodfox and a third black man, Robert King, came together to form a chapter of the Black Panther movement inside the prison, hoping to organise African American inmates against the brutal treatment they endured. Then on April 17, 1972, a prison guard called Brent Miller was murdered during an arrest on one of the wings.

The Angola 3 were immediately accused of the murder, and placed that same day in solitary. They have insisted ever since on their innocence, pointing to the lack of any physical evidence linking them to Miller's death and suggestions that the main eyewitness against them was bribed by prison officials.

They say that the murder charge was trumped up to punish them for their political activities.

Since 1972, Wallace and Woodfox have been brought before more than 150 prison boards where their unprecedented duration in solitary confinement has been reviewed only for them to be sent straight back to their cells. The only explanation given: "Nature of the original reason for lockdown".

"This is a case of innocence and the abuse of human rights," Robert King said on the eve of the anniversary. King's conviction was overturned and he was released in 2001, and he said he fears for his former fellow inmates now bearing in mind that they have spent more than a decade longer in solitary than he did.

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Democracy Now!: 40 Years in Solitary Confinement: Two Members of Angola 3 Remain in Isolation in Louisiana Prison

It’s been 40 years to the day — since April 17, 1972, or 14,600 days ago — that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been held in solitary confinement in Louisiana. The state says they were guilty of murdering a guard at Angola Prison, but Wallace, Woodfox and their network of supporters say they were framed for their political activism as members of the Black Panthers. Woodfox and Wallace founded the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1971. A third prisoner, Robert King joined them a year later. The three campaigned for better working conditions and racial solidarity between inmates, as well as an end to rape and sexual slavery. Today, to mark the 40-year anniversary of their placement in solitary confinement, Amnesty USA says it will deliver a petition to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal that bears the signatures of tens of thousands of people from 125 countries. We speak to Robert King who was released in 2001 when his conviction was overturned and he pleaded guilty to a lesser offense. “We want the state of Louisiana, and we want the world to know, that we are still focusing on this case that is a total violation of human rights and civil rights,” King says. “It is ongoing.”

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Amnesty International:  US authorities urged to end two men’s 40-year-long solitary imprisonment

Woodfox and Wallace are confined to their 2m x 3m cells for 23 hours a day and allowed out only to exercise alone in a small outdoor cage, or to shower or walk along the cell unit corridor.

They have limited access to books, newspapers and television. For the past four decades they have not been allowed to work or have access to education. Social interaction has been restricted to occasional visits from friends and family and limited telephone calls.  

They have also been denied any meaningful review of the reasons for their isolation.

“What evidence is there that these men are so dangerous that they must be subjected to these conditions? They have clean disciplinary histories, they are old men and four decades of solitary confinement has left them physically and mentally frail," said Everette Harvey Thompson.

"There is no legitimate penal purpose for keeping these men in solitary. Louisiana authorities must end this inhumanity.” 

The men’s lawyers have told Amnesty International that both are suffering from serious health problems caused or exacerbated by their years of solitary confinement.

Amnesty International has also raised questions about legal aspects of the case against them.

No physical evidence linking the men to the guard’s murder has ever been found, while potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been lost.

The convictions were also based on questionable inmate testimony.

Over the years of litigation, documents have emerged suggesting that the main eyewitness was bribed by prison officials into giving statements against the men and that the state withheld evidence about the perjured testimony of another inmate witness. A further witness later retracted his testimony.

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Amnesty International: Slavery still reigns in US prisons
Robert King, the only one of the Angola 3 who has been released from prison, talks about how he coped with 29 years in solitary confinement.

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