Twelve days after his 22nd birthday, Kalief Browder wrapped an air-conditioner power cord around his neck and hanged himself. In 2010, at the age of 16, he was arrested after being accused of stealing a backpack. He would spend three years in New York City’s Rikers Island prison, more than two of those years in solitary confinement. He was beaten by prison guards and inmates alike. He was not serving a sentence; he was in pretrial detention. He declined all plea bargains. He wanted his day in court, to prove his innocence. A judge finally dismissed the case against him. After his release, Kalief Browder tried to reclaim his life. In the end, the nightmare he lived through overwhelmed him. Two years after his release, he committed suicide.
Albert Woodfox also knows the torment of solitary confinement. Woodfox has the distinction of being the prisoner in the United States who has spent the most time in solitary confinement, now well over 42 years. For most of that time, he was locked up in the notorious maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary known as “Angola,” built on the site of a former plantation worked by slaves from the African country of Angola.
Woodfox is one of the “Angola Three,” three prisoners who served more than a century—that’s right, more than 100 years—of solitary confinement between them. They believe the isolation was retaliation for forming the first prison chapter of the Black Panthers in 1971. They were targeted for organizing against segregation, inhumane working conditions and the systemic rape and sexual slavery inflicted on many imprisoned at Angola.
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Woodfox and another of the Angola 3, the late Herman Wallace, were convicted for the 1972 murder of prison guard Brent Miller. The case against them had significant flaws, and their convictions were later overturned. On Oct. 1, 2013, Herman Wallace was freed, but only after a federal judge threatened to arrest the warden if he did not release him. Wallace was suffering from advanced liver cancer, and died, surrounded by family and friends, several days later.
A federal judge has just issued a similarly urgent order for Albert Woodfox’s release, but the state of Louisiana has appealed to a federal appeals court. Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned not once but twice. Even the murdered guard’s widow, Teenie Verret, has said she doesn’t believe the men killed her husband. Nevertheless, Louisiana’s Attorney General “Buddy” Caldwell would like to subject Woodfox, who is now 68, to a third trial for the same crime. Federal Judge James Brady is determined to set Woodfox free, once and for all.
Brady ordered, “Mr. Woodfox’s age and poor health ... this Court’s lack of confidence in the State to provide a fair third trial, the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over forty years in solitary confinement, and finally the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice and would otherwise face his third trial for a crime that occurred over forty years ago ... the only just remedy is an unconditional writ of habeas corpus barring retrial of Mr. Albert Woodfox and releasing Mr. Woodfox from custody immediately.”
The warden of Angola, Burl Cain, said he had to keep Woodfox and the Angola 3 in solitary confinement because of their “Black Pantherism.” Woodfox, speaking over a prison phone, said, “I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. ... So they might bend me a little bit, they may cause me a lot of pain, they may even take my life; but they will never be able to break me.”
Kalief Browder, sadly, was broken. Jennifer Gonnerman of The New Yorker magazine, who wrote eloquently about Kalief’s case while he was alive, wrote on the day after his death, “He wanted the public to know what he had gone through, so that nobody else would have to endure the same ordeals.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has ended solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year olds on Rikers Island, and hopes to end it soon for those under 21. After learning of the suicide, de Blasio said: “A lot of the changes we are making at Rikers Island right now are a result of the example of Kalief Browder. So I wish, I deeply wish we hadn’t lost him, but he did not die in vain.”
There are an estimated 80,000-100,000 prisoners held in some form of solitary confinement in the United States. The United Nations says the practice often amounts to torture. It is cruel and unusual punishment, and must be abolished, once and for all.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.