Life on Permanent Lockdown

Could the case of the Angola 3 test the use of solitary confinement in American prisons?

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are believed to have been held in solitary confinement for longer than any inmate in America-37 years, to be precise, nearly all of them spent in 6-by-9 cells at Louisiana's notorious Angola prison. For 23 hours a day, they pass the time in their cells as best they can. For one hour, they are allowed out to take a shower or a stroll along the cell block. Three days a week, they can use that hour to exercise alone in a fenced yard, as long as the weather is good.

Wallace and Woodfox were originally sent to Angola for armed robbery offenses in the early 1970s. When a young guard named Brent Miller was stabbed to death in 1972, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of his murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, although, as courts have since acknowledged, there were numerous flaws with their trials: faulty evidence, manufactured testimony, and bribed witnesses, as well as inadequate legal representation and discriminatory jury selection. Along with another prisoner, Robert King, the men became known as the Angola 3, and for three decades they protested their innocence in court, maintaining that they had been targeted because they had helped found a Black Panthers chapter at Angola and were organizing for better conditions at the prison.

In recent years a federal judge ordered Louisiana to release Woodfox and give him a new trial; another judge recommended a new trial for Wallace. (King was released in 2001 when a judge overturned his conviction, after he had spent 29 years in solitary.) Yet the state has mounted endless appeals and procedural roadblocks to keep the pair locked away. Wallace and Woodfox are now 68 and 62, respectively.

After my requests to interview both men were denied, I began a correspondence with them. Their letters reveal a sense of resolve amid the bleakness of their situation. "I use stacks of books for exercise and thereafter I am either writing or reading. I have no time for foolishness. It's really that serious. I am in a struggle against the state of Louisiana on two strategic fronts, and hear me when I tell you they are not fighting fair," Wallace wrote to me recently. "The sense of hopelessness is endless and if not fought can break a person! (I bend, but don't break!)" Woodfox wrote.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande made a persuasive case that solitary confinement is a form of torture. He cited lab studies in which baby monkeys raised in isolation became "profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves." Humans, it turns out, experience similarly acute anguish when deprived of social contact. When Gawande examined the cases of prisoners who had been kept alone for prolonged periods, he found that they disintegrated, mentally and physically. They became depressed, hallucinated, were unable to remember basic facts, and in some instances became catatonic. "Without sustained social interaction," Gawande concluded, "the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury."

The use of so-called extended lockdown has grown exponentially since the 1980s and is now an almost routine part of the American criminal justice system. The practice has been denounced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, among others. Yet it has never aroused much public opposition, even among progressives who are outraged by reports of psychological abuse from Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.

For the past decade, the Angola 3 have also challenged the use of solitary confinement in a civil lawsuit in federal court, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." For years, this case went nowhere. But on April 3, a federal magistrate judge at the US District Court in Baton Rouge allowed the lawsuit to proceed. It will likely be heard in the fall, and if the court makes a broad ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, it could potentially affect the more than 25,000 prisoners who live in complete isolation in supermax prisons or lockdown units around the country.

Most recent attempts to challenge the use of solitary confinement in court have failed, although none of the prisoners involved have been isolated for as long as Wallace and Woodfox. American courts have tended to define "cruel and unusual punishment" as conditions that deprive a prisoner of "basic human needs." In the case of the Angola 3, the state of Louisiana seeks to define these needs narrowly as "adequate food, sleep, clothing, shelter or medical attention," and has insisted that prisoners in solitary are provided with all of these things. In response, the Angola 3's lawyers argue that "the conditions of extended lockdown must be considered both cumulatively and durationally." Years in solitary have certainly deprived Woodfox and Wallace of adequate exercise and sleep, they say. More significantly, they also urge the court to acknowledge "social contact and environmental stimulation as basic human needs."

Wallace and Woodfox have, say their lawyers, endured both physical injury and "severe mental anguish and other psychological damage" from living most of their adult lives in lockdown. According to medical reports submitted to the court, the men suffer from arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. Even the psychologist brought in by the state confirmed these findings. When US Magistrate Judge Docia Dalby allowed the Eighth Amendment lawsuit to proceed, she said that the men had been isolated for "durations so far beyond the pale that this court has not found anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence."

Dalby also allowed the lawyers to expand their case-to challenge not only how the men are being confined, but why. Wallace and Woodfox are not being kept in solitary as a disciplinary or safety measure, their lawyers contend. Prison records show that the pair has had no serious disciplinary violations for more than 20 years. The only reason ever given for their continued isolation, in every one of the 90-day reviews they have had over the past three decades, is "nature of original reason for lockdown." When the federal judge ordered Woodfox released in 2008, he described him as a "frail, sickly" man with "an exemplary conduct record." The lawyers have assembled compelling evidence that the men have been isolated for more than 30 years for their beliefs, not their behavior, and that therefore their First Amendment rights have been violated, too. In other words, their lawyers plan to argue that Wallace and Woodfox are essentially political prisoners.

This is not an entirely new legal argument, but Wallace and Woodfox happen to have unusually strong evidence to support it, mostly in the form of public comments by Angola's warden, Burl Cain. For instance, when the judge decided to allow this claim to move forward, she cited an affidavit taken from a New Orleans schoolteacher who questioned Cain at a public event in 2000:

I started out the conversation by saying something like: "I was wondering if you could tell me anything about the 'Angola 3'?" "You mean Woodfox?" Cain responded. "I know all about them." He continued, "it's not obvious" that they should be let out of extended lockdown, they were "not good men," they "haven't reformed their political beliefs," and would be disruptive to the prison environment. Cain characterized the three inmates as violent and said they would incite other inmates to violence if let into the general prison population.

At one point, I asked, "So they're political prisoners?" Cain responded, "Well, yes. Well no, I don't like the word political."

And in a deposition last year, Cain states that Wallace and Woodfox are "still hooked up" to "Black Panther revolutionary actions." Even if Woodfox were not guilty of the murder of the prison guard, Cain says, he would still keep him in solitary. "I still know he is trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates...I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand."

Now, the Angola 3's lawyers have been granted the right to file an amended claim and conduct further discovery, which will focus in part on gathering more evidence that Wallace and Woodfox are being kept in solitary confinement not because of what they have done or what they might do, but because of what they believe. Finding examples probably won't be difficult. Louisiana attorney general James "Buddy" Caldwell, an ambitious Democrat elected in 2007, has characterized the Angola 3 to the press as political radicals and calls Albert Woodfox "the most dangerous man on the planet."

In March of 2008, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, paid a visit to Angola and met with Wallace and Woodfox. Four days later the two men, along with a handful of other prisoners, were moved out of lockdown cells and into a new "maximum security dormitory" that appeared to have been created expressly for them. Compared with others in the general prison population, they still faced serious restrictions. Yet it offered them a level of human contact that the two men had scarcely known since they were in their 20s. They were able to converse face to face, after decades of communicating through notes and third parties. "Every once in a while he'll put his arm around me or I'll put my arm around him," Albert wrote to a newsletter distributed to Angola 3 supporters. "It's those kind of things that make you human."

By the fall, Albert Woodfox's conviction had been overturned, and the court had ordered him released on bail while the state's appeal of this decision was pending. However, Caldwell said that he opposed the release "with every fiber of my being." Woodfox had been planning to stay with his niece while on bail. But his lawyers uncovered evidence that the state had emailed the neighborhood association of the gated community where she lived to inform them that a murderer was moving in next door. In December, Caldwell convinced the conservative 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals to stay Woodfox's release on bail.

By that time, both men had been thrown back into isolation, to an even harsher section known as the "dungeon"-tiny, windowless cells that they were allowed to leave for only 15 minutes a day, rather than an hour, to shower in an adjacent space. They had allegedly violated prison rules by conducting a three-way call and giving an interview to a prison radio broadcast. Negotiations in their Eighth Amendment case ground to a halt. They had experienced a mere eight months of what had passed as comparative freedom.

Then, in March this year, Wallace and Woodfox were subjected to a move by the state that added to the pain of their predicament: They were forcibly separated from one another, not by a wall or a few tiers of cells, but by 75 miles of Louisiana's alluvial plain. One morning in March, Albert Woodfox woke up to discover that Herman Wallace was gone from Angola. Wallace had managed to make a phone call to Jackie Sumell, an artist and pivotal member of the dedicated Angola 3 activist community. He explained that he'd been transferred to Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, a two-hour drive down the Mississippi, below Baton Rouge. Wallace reported that a warden had told him that Hunt marked a new beginning for him, and that he might even be introduced into the facility's general population, ending his years of solitary confinement for good.

Two months later, he is still in lockdown, with no sign of getting out. I was denied permission to visit either man, but Wallace explained in a letter that the separation has made their legal battle even more challenging. "My presence here is designed to completely separate me from Albert. Such separation is designed to disrupt our effectiveness winning court decisions after court decisions. The move also makes matters 10 times worse for our attorneys who have to travel from one facility to the next to gather meaningful information. Albert and I can no longer iron out our thinking to make rational decisions for our attornies [sic] to embrace." Woodfox, meanwhile, offered a more poignant analysis of their separation: "There is an emotional toll, one that I would equate to the breaking up of a family during slavery in America. The pain and loss is beyond explanation."

In my correspondence with the two men, what struck me most was how lucid and determined they remained, despite their long years of isolation. In my most recent letter to Woodfox, I asked whether he thought his struggle in the courts would ever result in justice. He replied:

Who knows? Justice for me is abstract! The due process of the court is abstract. The law is abstract. To apply objective thought to the courts can drive you insane. I have no desire to go insane...

Justice means freedom for me, raises more questions than it answers. While I am a self educated man I am 62 years old. No past for the last 40 years. So how will I live?

While there are a lot of potentials, its not guarantees. For the last 40 years I have no bills to pay. No social obligations or responsibilities. I have made no social contributions and that saddens me greatly. Add to that I am African American and an ex-con! In a nutshell, justice for me means more questions than answers. (I am up to the challenge!)

*Among the activists who took up the cause of the Angola 3 were the late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop (and a former Mother Jones board member), and her husband, Gordon. The Roddick's family charity, the Roddick Foundation, contributed funding for this story.

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