After serving more than 41 years in solitary confinement, the longest sentence in isolation ever served by a U.S. inmate, Angola Three prisoner Albert Woodfox had a new day in court on Thursday to seek damages against Louisiana prison authorities for constitutional rights violations.
Woodfox, 67, was arrested for armed robbery in 1971 and sentenced to 50 years at Louisiana State Penitentiary — also known as Angola, a prison built on a former slave plantation that quickly became one of the most notorious facilities in the country. He was placed in solitary in April 1972, where he has remained ever since, for allegedly killing a guard, Officer Brent Miller, during riots in the prison that year. He was transferred from Angola to the David Wade correctional center in unincorporated Claiborne Parish in 2010, but was immediately placed in closed-cell restriction there as well.
Woodfox is seeking permission from the U.S. Fifth Circuit appeals court in New Orleans to sue prison officials for violating his constitutional rights, including the Eighth Amendment, which protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment.
"This is one more step in what has been a very long, long path towards justice," Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, told Common Dreams "[Albert] is still sitting in a tiny solitary confinement cell waiting to hear from an appeals court... Combined, the Angola Three have served more than 100 years in solitary confinement."
The Guardian reports:
If the appeals court upholds an early ruling from a lower court and allows Woodfox’s lawsuit to go to trial next year, the Louisiana authorities face potentially massive financial penalties. Were he to win at trial, not only would the prison service face up to $1m in legal costs but it could also be saddled with seven-figure damages.
Apart from a three-year period in general population, Woodfox has spent 23 hours of every day alone in a 6-by-8-foot cell. His only view is of the prison hallway. In the last hour of the day, he is permitted to walk the hallway, shower, and occasionally walk through the exercise yard — alone. In January, he testified that prison guards forced him to undergo daily strip and cavity searches. In 2008, he described (pdf) the claustrophobia and panic attacks that plagued him in a solitary camp known as 'the Dungeon,' where prisoners are confined at all times except for a 15-minute shower break. "When I have an attack I feel like I am being smothered, it is very difficult to breathe, and I sweat profusely; it seems like the cell walls close in and are just inches from my face," he stated.
But David Wade prison officials are arguing (pdf) that because Woodfox transferred to their facility in 2010, his four-year solitary confinement there should be considered a separate sentence from his decades in Angola — and that four years in isolation does not constitute “atypical and significant hardship.” Authorities also claim that qualified immunity protects them from liability in Woodfox’s case, and that as a prisoner, he could not have expected to have his liberties protected.
Woodfox’s lawyers counter (pdf) that officials’ arguments for keeping Woodfox in solitary confinement are “sham proceedings” and “meaningless board reviews.” They say prison authorities could not have been unaware that decades of solitary confinement counted as “atypical” punishment, and should not be able to invoke qualified immunity in this case. “Immunizing Defendants-Appellants also contravenes the letter of qualified immunity law, which is intended to protect public servants who reasonably believed their conduct was lawful—not shield those who conduct themselves with wanton indifference to the law,” their brief states.
Woodfox’s conviction for the guard's murder has been overturned three times. Federal courts ruled that the trial had violated his constitutional rights through racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, and suppression of exculpatory evidence.
But instead of freeing Woodfox, Louisiana attorney general Buddy Caldwell decided to contest the most recent federal decision in 2008 and sent him back to live in isolation at Angola.
“Then and now, the fundament of the suit has been this: the continued lockdown confinement of [Albert Woodfox] without legitimate penological interests, in violation of the Constitution,” the lawsuit states.
"Louisiana cannot extend the abuses and injustice against Albert Woodfox another day," said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "Louisiana authorities are leading a campaign of vengeance instead of upholding justice. Keeping Woodfox in solitary confinement for over four decades is a dark stain on human rights in the United States and globally. Louisiana must withdraw its legal appeal and allow the federal court ruling to stand. Should this not occur, the Court of Appeal should rule in the interests of justice and pave the way for Albert Woodfox's release."
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, in October 2013 called for Albert Woodfox’s immediate release from solitary confinement. “Four decades in solitary confinement can only be described as torture,” he said.
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After his imprisonment in 1971, Woodfox was an active member of the Black Panther party on his cell block — having joined the organization after briefly escaping from court on his sentencing date — which angered the guards at Angola. Officer Miller's death led to Woodfox and two other Black Panther inmates, Herman Wallace and Robert King, being accused of his murder. The case was fraught with inconsistencies, lost evidence, and special favors paid between prison officials and inmates, as well as investigators and jury members.
Woodfox and Wallace were tried and convicted by an all-white jury within two hours.
King was never charged, but placed in solitary confinement for 29 years until his release in 2001.
"You heard hollering and screaming and the bodies being slammed against the walls," says Billy Wayne Sinclair, a white inmate on death row in 1972. "Upstairs you could smell tear gas bombs. They would come in there and set them off. So we would have to wet stuff and put it to our faces and turn our fans on and hope that we could suck as much out as we could. We heard the beatings that were going on for weeks after that."
Several inmates said it was a bad month to be black at Angola. According to court records, prison officials never questioned a single white inmate.
Herman Wallace was set free on October 1, 2013, at age 71, after Amnesty International called for his release on humanitarian grounds. Two days later, a grand jury reindicted him for Miller’s murder, but did not arrest him. He died the next day.
Prison officials have argued that Woodfox should not be freed from solitary confinement because "there has been no rehabilitation [from] practicing Black Pantherism." Over the past several years, Woodfox has testified about the numerous health problems he has suffered from while in solitary confinement.
The Guardian writes:
The prisoner is suffering from several medical ailments including hypertension, heart disease and kidney disease. Psychologically, his lawyers say, Woodfox is remarkably stoic and uncomplaining, but Kendall said there had been a “horrible toll” from prolonged isolation.
"Really the amazing thing about Albert, King, and Herman, was that they have gone through and experienced so beyond the pale what human beings can endure and have come out committed to justice," Heiss said.
"A remedy to the injustice inflicted on Albert Woodfox by the state is long overdue," said Tessa Murphy, USA campaigner at Amnesty International. "Herman Wallace gained his freedom only to die within days. Justice must not again be so cruelly delayed."
King, who Heiss calls Woodfox's "most tireless advocate," has been fighting for Woodfox’s freedom since his own release. “I may be free from Angola,” he writes on his website, "but Angola will never be free of me.”