Tag Archives: Angola 3

The Woodfox Judgement

Thanks to right-wing courts, the draconian sentencing guidelines passed by state and federal legislatures–and, believe it or not, the actions of Bill Clinton–the numbers of older prisoners in American prisons and jails is growing. More and more men and women have been given such long sentences that they will die in prison, and it’s become virtually impossible for most of them to mount appeals.

As one extreme case in point, yesterday the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision against Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3. Woodfox, who is now 63 years old, has been at Angola since he was 34, and in solitary confinement for 38 years. Last night on Solitary Watch, Jean Casella and I posted this:

Albert Woodfox has spent nearly all of the last 38 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. His case has brought protests from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who argue that Woodfox’s decades in lockdown constitute torture, and from a growing band of supporters, who believe that he was denied a fair trial. For more than ten years, he has been fighting for his release in the courts. But yesterday, a ruling by a federal appeals court ensured that for the forseeable future, Albert Woodfox will remain right where he has been for nearly four decades: in a 6 x 9 cell in the heart of America’s largest and most notorious prison.  

Woodfox was given a life sentence–and thrown into permanent lockdown–for the 1972 murder of an Angola prison guard. He has been appealing his case for years, arguing that he was convicted in a patently unfair trial based on tainted evidence. In 2008, a federal district court judge agreed, and overturned his conviction. But the Fifth Circuit came down on the side of the state of Louisiana, ruling that Woodfox’s conviction stands.

It’s hard to believe this powerful federal court once was once a great defender of civil rights:

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals once had a reputation as one of the finest appellate courts in the land. In the 1960s, a small group of Fifth Circuit judges—mostly Southern-bred moderate Republicans—was known for advancing civil rights and especially school desegregation.  But today the Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, is seen as among the most ideologically conservative of the federal appeals courts. It is notable for its overburdened docket and for its hostility to appeals from defendants in capital cases, including claims based on faulty prosecution and suppressed evidence. The court has even been reprimanded by the U.S. Supreme Court, itself is no friend to death row inmates: In June 2004, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the Fifth Circuit was “paying lip service to principles” of appellate law in handing down death penalty rulings.  

The Court’s rightward descent is set against a background of the unyielding Supreme Court–an institution that has clearly become an enemy of the people. But contrary to what liberals like to think, these problems did not begin with the Bush Administration. In doing their dirty work, the courts can cite legislation passed under Bill Clinton.    

I can well remember the first hint of what we could expect under President Clinton in the area of criminal justice. During the 1992 Democratic primary in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton, in an  answer to a question  at a town meeting, suggested habeas corpus had been stretched beyond its bounds. Her husband proceeded to rectify this situation, with dire results for the rights of prisoners and the accused:

The decision in Woodfox’s case shows the crippling effect on prisoners’ rights of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) which was passed under Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. That legislation has become the bane of anti-death penalty lawyers and activists, and of thousands of other prisoners seeking to challenge their convictions–a pursuit which AEDPA now renders nearly impossible.  

As the Fifth Circuit noted in its ruling, “The AEDPA requires that federal courts ’defer to a state court’s adjudication of a claim’” unless the state court decision ran “‘contrary to…clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,’” or was ”‘based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.’” And as the judges pointed out, ”An unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect or erroneous application of the law.” 

In other words, the state courts could be wrong, they just couldn’t be so far out as to be undeniably “unreasonable.” And in the end, the Fifth Circuit judges agreed with the State’s argument that in the case at hand, ”the district court failed to apply the AEDPA’s heightened deferential standard of review to Woodfox’s ineffective assistance claims.” Woodfox’s conviction may have been wrong, but it was not, in the eyes of the Fifth Circuit, “unreasonable”–so there will be no new trial for him. This is how justice works in post-AEDPA America.

New Site: Solitary Watch

Readers of Unsilent Generation will know that I’ve written before on prison reform issues, aging behind bars, and the case of the Angola 3, which involves men who have spent decades in solitary confinement. I’ve now launched a new web site, in collaboration with writer and editor Jean Casella, called Solitary Watch News.

Solitary Watch News site is part of an emerging project called Solitary Watch, which will serve as the first centralized source of information on solitary confinement in the United States. The full Solitary Watch web site–which will be hosted by the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse (VC3), a clinical program of the Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia directed by veteran death penalty attorney David Bruck–will be launched in the spring of 2010.

Why Solitary Watch?

Many Americans have recoiled from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and polls show that a clear majority oppose the use of torture under any circumstances, even on foreign terrorism suspects. Yet conditions of confinement in U.S. prisons and jails that transgress the boundaries of humane treatment have produced little outcry.  

The use of solitary confinement in the United States provides the clearest example of this situtation.  Solitary confinement has grown dramatically in the past two decades. Today, at least 25,000 prisoners are being held in long-term lockdown in the nation’s ”supermax” facilities; some 50,000 to 80,000 more are held in isolation in “administrative segregation” or “special housing” units at other facilities. In other words, on any given day, as many as 100,000 people are living in solitary confinement in America’s prisons. This widespread practice has received scant media attention, and has yet to find a place in the public discourse or on political platforms.

Solitary Watch is conceived as an innovative public web site aimed at bringing this issue out of the shadows and into the light of the public square. The mission of Solitary Watch is to provide the public—as well as practicing attorneys, legal scholars, law enforcement and corrections officers, policymakers, educators, advocates, and prisoners–with the first comprehensive source of information on solitary confinement in the United States. Combining a database compiled through state-by-state research with background, analysis, and breaking news, the site will serve as an information clearinghouse, educational resource, and online community.

Why now?

This project is being launched at a pivotal moment, coinciding with several important developments in U.S. criminal justice. As Americans’ support for executions wanes in the wake of numerous exonerations and excessive costs, the alternative punishment of choice seems to be long-term solitary confinement, whether on prison death rows or in supermax lockdown units. Solitary confinement also awaits accused and convicted terrorists as they are transferred onto American soil from Guantanamo and elsewhere. Finally, in the absence of appropriate medical care, solitary confinement has increasingly been used as a way to control and warehouse mentally ill prisoners. As these trends continue, there will be an increasing need for a comprehensive, reliable source of information on this practice, and on the many practical, legal, and ethical questions it raises.

I hope you will visit the site and subscribe to Solitary Watch News at http://solitarywatch.wordpress.com/.

Washington Post Calls for Abolition of Solitary Confinement

An editorial in Saturday’s Washington Post, called “Solitary Disgrace,” calls for an end to the widespread use of long-term lockdown in America’s prisons and jails. The Post‘s editors write:

At one time shunned in the United States, solitary confinement is becoming a tool increasingly used by corrections officials trying desperately to keep order in grossly overcrowded and sometimes chaotic prisons. These decisions are made even though solitary confinement costs roughly twice as much as keeping an inmate in the general prison population. At any given time, experts estimate that 25,000 to 100,000 prisoners are kept in some sort of “special housing unit” where they are isolated and kept apart from the general prison population. The number changes frequently as new prisoners are sent in and others sent out of solitary….

A short stint in solitary for most does not result in serious or permanent harm. But more prolonged stays of months or years — a practice not uncommon in many states — can result in devastating psychological damage, including psychosis and debilitating depression. Studies have also shown that inmates kept in solitary confinement for prolonged periods display higher levels of hostility than those in the general prison population; they tend to carry this hostility with them after they are returned to the general prison population or released back into the community.

I’ve been writing for some time about the case of the Angola 3, the Louisiana prisoners who have been held in solitary for as long as 37 years. Lawyers for Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, and Robert King have for years been working on a case that challenges this kind of long-term solitary confinement on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. That case is expected to at last come to trial early next year, and should shed additional light on the true toll of life in lockdown.

Ironically, the issue of solitary confinement only becomes more pressing as some states gradually lose their taste for the death penalty, and offenders languish indefinitely in complete isolation, either on death row or in other lockdown units. Yet even among progressives, the practice has never received the same kind of attention or protest as the treatment of terrorism suspects abroad. The fact that this subject even made it onto the editorial pages of one of our so-called newspapers of record suggests some growing recognition that solitary confinement is a form of torture, and that we have our own Guantanamos and Abu Ghraibs to deal with here at home.

Appeal Denied After 37 Years in Solitary Confinement

The Louisiana State Supreme Court Friday denied an appeal from Herman Wallace, who has been held in solitary confinement for more than 37 years. Wallace and Albert Woodfox are members of what has become known as the Angola 3, whose story I have been covering for Mother Jones. Convicted of the 1972 murder of a prison guard at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, both men maintain their innocence; they believe they were targeted for the crime and relegated to permanent lockdown because of their organizing work with the prison chapter of the Black Panthers. Wallace, who is now 68 years old, was recently transferred from Angola to the Hunt Correctional Center near Baton Rouge, where he continues to be held in solitary. Two days ago, Wallace descended even deeper into the hole, placed in a disciplinary unit called Beaver 5 for unknown violations of prison policy.

Herman Wallace launched the appeal of his conviction nearly a decade ago. His lawyers have introduced substantial evidence showing that the state’s star witness, a fellow prisoner named Hezekiah Brown, was offered special treatment and an eventual pardon in exchange for his testimony against Wallace and Woodfox. In 2006, a judicial commissioner assigned to study the case found that there were grounds for overturning the conviction, but Wallace’s application was subsequently denied–by the state district court, court of appeals, and now by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

While every setback comes as a blow to a man nearing 70 who has spent nearly four decades in lockdown, one of Wallace’s attorneys said tonight that this denial by the state’s highest court came as no surprise, since it has a reputation for refusing to overturn the decisions of lower courts. Today’s ruling opens the doors to a federal habeas corpus challenge, beginning with the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana at Baton Rouge. Here, if Wallace is lucky, his case will be reviewed by a fact-finding federal magistrate, and his conviction overturned by a federal judge. This is what happened to Albert Woodfox last year. Yet Woodfox, too, remains in prison–and in solitary confinement–as the state appeals the judge’s decision.

Louisiana’s Attorney General, James “Buddy” Caldwell, has stated that he opposes releasing the two men “with every fiber of my being,” while the Warden of Angola and Hunt prisons, Burl Cain, has more than once suggested that the two men must be held in solitary because they ascribe to “Black Pantherism.”

In addition to their criminal appeals, Wallace and Woodfox (along with Robert King, who was released in 2001), have a case pending on constitutional grounds. They argue that the conditions and duration of their time in solitary confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Their lawyers have submitted reports showing the effects of decades of solitary confinement on men in their sixties—including arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. The suit also argues that Wallace and Woodfox are being held in lockdown for their political beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment.

Life in Lockdown


Note: For several months, as part of my work for Mother Jones, I have been covering the case of the Angola 3, which involves men in their sixties who have been in solitary confinement for going on four decades. You can read my earlier story on the subject here. Other Unsilent Generation posts on aging behind bars can be found here and here.

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.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

The Angola 3: 36 Years of Solitude


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.