Tuesday, April 17, 2012

40 years of solitary confinement


By the Activist Newsletter

April 17 is the 40th anniversary of the solitary confinement of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace at Angola Prison in Louisiana, the remaining two of the Angola 3. The third, Robert King, was released in 2001 when his conviction was overturned and he pleaded guilty to a lesser offense. The three were members of the Black Panther Party within prison and they campaigned for better working conditions and racial solidarity between inmates, as well as an end to rape and sexual slavery. They are considered by many to be political prisoners subjected to particularly cruel punishment. The Angola 3 website is http://www.angola3.org/.

Here are three reports — from Amnesty, the Guardian and Democracy Now:

From: Amnesty International, 4/17:

Authorities in Louisiana must immediately remove two inmates from isolation conditions imposed on them four decades ago, said Amnesty International today as it prepared to hand over a 65,000-signature petition to Governor Jindal demanding action.

On 17 April 1972, Albert Woodfox, now 65, and Herman Wallace, now 70, were placed in an isolation unit in Louisiana State Penitentiary — known as Angola Prison. They were charged, and later convicted of, the murder of a prison guard — something they have consistently denied.

Apart from very brief periods, they have been held in isolation ever since.

"The 40-year isolated incarceration of these two men is scandalous,” said Everette Harvey Thompson, Southern Office Regional Director of Amnesty International USA. “It pushes the boundaries of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and flies in the face of international standards to which the U.S. is a party.”

Woodfox and Wallace are confined to their 6 foot by nine foot 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.

[Amnesty's 12-page pdf, "USA: 100 YEARS IN SOLITARY: The Angola 3 and Their Fight for Justice," is available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR51/041/2011/en/1373c247-9955-41c4-a87a-db89ae161d5f/amr510412011en.pdf]

• The Guardian (UK), April 16:

"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 April 17, 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....

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 organize 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.

From Democracy Now!, April 17:

Today, to mark the 40-year anniversary of the incarceration in solitary confinement Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, 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.”

[The full and informative Democracy Now interview (either text, sound or TV) is at http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/17/40_years_in_solitary_confinement_two.]