AGING BEHIND BARS SERIES
For the last several weeks, I’ve been working on this story, which appears on the Mother Jones web site. These two men, both in their sixties, have been in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, for more than half their lives.
What’s left of Albert Woodfox’s life now lies in the hands of a federal appeals court in New Orleans. By the time the court hears his case on Tuesday, the 62-year-old will have spent 36 years, 2 months, and 24 days in a 6-by-9-foot cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was, the notorious prison, immortalized in the film Dead Man Walking, has long been considered one of the most brutal in America, a place where rape, abuse, and violence have been commonplace. With the exception of a few brief months last year, Woodfox has served nearly all of his time there in solitary confinement, out of contact with other prisoners, and locked in his cell 23 hours a day. By most estimates, he and his codefendant, Herman Wallace, have spent more time in solitary than any other inmates in US history.
Woodfox and Wallace are members of a triad known as the “Angola 3″—three prisoners who spent decades in solitary confinement after being accused of prison murders and convicted on questionable evidence. Before they were isolated from other inmates, the trio, which included a prisoner named Robert King, had organized against conditions in what was considered “the bloodiest prison in America.” Their supporters believe that their activism, along with their ties to the Black Panther Party, motivated prison officials to scapegoat the inmates.
Along with this gross miscarriage of justice, the Angola case raises the issue of old people in prison. Sentences are so long in the state that about 85 percent of the 5,000 men in Angola Prison will die there (a few from lethal injections, but most from illness and old age). The prison has not only its own hospital, but a hospice, a cemetary, and a full-blown funeral industry.