Forty Years in Solitary: Two of the Angola Three Sue Louisiana Prison Officials

George Lavender September 16, 2014

(L to R) Albert Woodfox, who is suing prison officials in Louisiana after more than 40 years in solitary confinement, and Herman Wallace, who died in 2013 three days after being released from prison, also after decades in solitary.

Albert Wood­fox has been in soli­tary con­fine­ment for much of the past 40 years. Along with Her­man Wal­lace and Robert King, Wood­fox is one of the Ango­la Three,” three mem­bers of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty who spent much of their lives in soli­tary con­fine­ment inside the walls of Louisiana State Prison, Ango­la. King was released in 2001, after 29 years in soli­tary con­fine­ment. Wal­lace, who was recent­ly fea­tured in the doc­u­men­tary film Her­man’s House,” died in 2013, three days after his release from prison. The last mem­ber of the Ango­la Three still incar­cer­at­ed, Wood­fox launched a law­suit to chal­lenge his con­tin­ued soli­tary con­fine­ment, and along with Robert King, is seek­ing dam­ages from prison offi­cials. The fam­i­ly of Her­man Wal­lace, set­tled with the state. 

The Prison Com­plex caught up with George Kendall Direc­tor of the Pub­lic Defend­er Ini­tia­tive, at Squire Pat­ton Bog­gs, who is work­ing on the case.

How did you get con­nect­ed to the Ango­la Three?” 

They were in need of coun­sel for the civ­il soli­tary con­fine­ment case and I was sur­prised to hear that some­one had been in soli­tary more than 30 years. That lead us to meet Mr Wal­lace, Mr Wood­fox, and Mr King and we agreed to take their case. We’ve had that civ­il case ever since.

You’ve men­tioned that these three peo­ple have spent a con­sid­er­able amount of time in soli­tary, tell us more about their case? 

Mr Wood­fox and Mr Wal­lace were placed in soli­tary in April of 1972 in the wake of a stab­bing death of a cor­rec­tion­al offi­cer at Louisiana State Prison, Ango­la which at the time was a real­ly hor­rif­ic prison by all accounts, every­one agrees with that. Robert King was trans­ferred from New Olre­ans to Louisiana State Prison a cou­ple of weeks lat­er. He was thrown direct­ly into soli­tary con­fine­ment. He was there until his lib­er­a­tion in Feb­ru­ary 2001 He was wrong­ly con­vict­ed of a mur­der in 1973, that con­vic­tion was over­turned when all of the wit­ness­es recant­ed their tes­ti­mo­ny. He was released from soli­tary con­fine­ment right out to the streets and has done remark­ably well despite the fact he spent 29 years in soli­tary. How­ev­er Mr Wal­lace, who unfor­tu­nate­ly passed away last Octo­ber, he stayed in soli­tary con­fine­ment from April 1972 up until Octo­ber 1st of last year, 2013, except for when he spent 9 months in a dor­mi­to­ry in 2008. So he spent more than 40 years in soli­tary con­fine­ment. Mr Wood­fox has been in soli­tary since 1972 except for a peri­od when he was await­ing retri­al in his case in 1997 through 1999 and again there was a 10 month peri­od in 2008 when he and Mr Wal­lace and oth­er inmates lived very peace­ful­ly in their dor­mi­to­ry in Louisiana State Prison.

Have you seen the cells they are held in?

We have vis­it­ed them often. We have toured with expert wit­ness­es the cell blocks in which they live. First in Louisiana State Prison in Ango­la and then Mr Wal­lace spent the last few years in soli­tary cells in Hunt Prison also in Louisiana. Mr Wood­fox has also been in soli­tary cells in Wade Prison and we’ve seen those as well.

How would you describe the cells?

They are very small, there’s no win­dow in the cell. There’s a win­dow the oth­er side of the hall­way. For five or six months of the year it’s extra­or­di­nar­i­ly hot. The only thing that’s done about that is there are fans that blow and when those fans blow it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to speak with any­body with­out yelling very loud­ly, so there’s very lit­tle com­mu­ni­ca­tion between any­one on the tier. Mr Wood­fox was trans­ferred from Louisiana State Prison to Wade in 2010 and has been in a 68 cell. He gets out one hour a day, five days a week, and fif­teen min­utes for a show­er. And two or three of those days he can go out­side into a small cage basi­cal­ly where he gets light and he can exer­cise and occa­sion­al­ly he will get vis­its, even more occa­sion­al­ly go to some oth­er part of the jail to see a doc­tor or what­ev­er. But on week­ends he gets 15 min­utes out of his cell and that’s it. So he’s spent an enor­mous amount of his life in that tiny cell. And Mr Wal­lace, it was vir­tu­al­ly the same for him at Ango­la and Hunt prison and it was vir­tu­al­ly the same for Mr King when he did 28 years in Angola.

What effects does Albert Wood­fox say this has had on him? 

We’re all social ani­mals. Imag­ine spend­ing the week­end in your bath­room and if you think you would have a hard time spend­ing the week­end in your bath­room just imag­ine what it must be like and what the con­se­quences might be of spend­ing days, weeks, months, years, decades in that same set­ting. All these guys have sleep issues, Mr Wood­fox par­tic­u­lar­ly has had claus­tro­pho­bic attacks. And there’s a social awk­ward­ness that comes when you’re around oth­er peo­ple. So they worked very hard to make sure they did not suc­cumb to tak­ing med­i­cines, psy­chotrop­ic med­i­cines. A lot of peo­ple have become men­tal­ly ill or their men­tal ill­ness is great­ly exac­er­bat­ed by these con­di­tions. It’s tak­en enor­mous dis­ci­pline to not be in far worse shape than they are.

Why do you think they have been kept in soli­tary so long? 

There’s no war­den who want­ed to be the one to release them to less con­fin­ing cir­cum­stances giv­en the fact that two of them have been con­vict­ed of being involved in the killing of a prison guard. This is one of those times that a fed­er­al judge is going to have to tell them that they are going to have to release Mr Woodfox.

Could you tell us more about the law­suit you’re cur­rent­ly work­ing on for Albert Woodfox? 

This law­suit is filed on behalf of Mr Wood­fox and Mr King. Mr Wood­fox is still held in soli­tary so one very major goal of the law­suit is to order the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions to release him from soli­tary con­fine­ment and place him in gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. Every time hes been in gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion he’s been just fine and he’ll be just fine again but it’s going to take a judge order to see that hap­pens. We’re quite con­fi­dent that when we go to tri­al we’ll be able to win that order. He along with Mr King are seek­ing mon­e­tary dam­ages. This goes well beyond the pail of what is sup­posed to hap­pen or what’s meant to hap­pen in pris­ons. There’s been no pena­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to hold these guys for any­where near this kind of time and so the war­dens and oth­ers vio­lat­ed clear­ly the con­sti­tu­tion and they ought to pay for it.

The law­suit is alleg­ing that this is a vio­la­tion of the Eighth Amendment?

There are a num­ber of claims. One is that sim­ply to hold some­body in these very restric­tive cir­cum­stances with­out jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is a text­book exam­ple of a vio­la­tion of the Eighth Amend­ment (pro­hi­bi­tion on) cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment. It’s a car­di­nal rule in Amer­i­can cor­rec­tions that pris­ons func­tion best when pris­on­ers are held in the least restric­tive envi­ron­ment, that it is nec­es­sary to ensure that they get along well and they are no threat to staff or pris­on­ers.. That car­di­nal rule has been run rough shod over for decades. These guys have been kept in far more restric­tive cir­cum­stances than any of the facts jus­ti­fied and that’s why this law­suit was filed and that’s why we’re going to pre­vail. The sec­ond claim… every 90 days that they’re put in soli­tary con­fine­ment they’re meant to review that… Every nine­ty days there’s a rec­om­men­da­tion: do we keep this per­son here in these high­ly restric­tive cir­cum­stances or do we place them in less restric­tive envi­ron­ments. Well, these kinds of 90 day reviews have gone on for 40 years with Mr Wood­fox and they’re clear­ly just a sham. He did not have a vio­la­tion for years and years and the ones he’s had in the last 20 years have been extreme­ly minor.

Tell us what hap­pened last week?

There was an issue with­in this large civ­il case. When he (Albert Wood­fox) was moved in 2010 we had to also sue the war­den and some oth­er staff at this new prison. And those new defen­dants object­ed to being sued… Under Amer­i­can law before they have to go to tri­al they can seek an appeal in the court of appeals of whether or not the suit can be main­tained against them. Judge Brady our tri­al judge had denied that motion and said you have to stay in the case, they appealed that and we were hope­ful that after the argu­ment the three judge pan­el was going to agree with Judge Brady.

And what are the next steps?

If the Three judge pan­el affirms and says these defen­dants are going to stay int he case then the case will go back to the dis­trict court, there will be a tri­al date set we’ll do some more dis­cov­ery and we’ll try that case with­out fur­ther delay in 2015.

There’s been a lot more atten­tion in recent years to the issue of soli­tary con­fine­ment, do you think there are wider impli­ca­tion of this case? 

I think the coun­try is reex­am­in­ing the use of soli­tary and I think there’s a grow­ing judge­ment that it’s been over-used and ought to be used in a much more mea­sured way. We tru­ly can’t afford to keep peo­ple for years in this type of incar­cer­a­tion that’s much more expen­sive to admin­is­ter than oth­er types of incar­cer­a­tion that would guar­an­tee safe­ty and allow the smooth run­ning of institutions. 

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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