Freedom After 40 Years in Solitary?

Supporters of one of the Angola Three tell The Root why he might be released this time.

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While Judge James Brady of U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, where Woodfox's request for release is on the docket, is prohibited from commenting on cases before him, court watchers say that he is keenly aware of the racial dynamics of the Angola Three's case and the constitutional issues it raises. (Brady issued the 2008 order for Woodfox's release.)

"In 2008 Judge Brady ruled they should release [Woodfox]. I have no reason to believe Judge Brady will not rule the same way today as he did back then," said attorney Angela Allen-Bell of Baton Rouge's Southern University Law Center, a member of Free the Angola 3, a coalition of human rights groups—including Amnesty International—corporate moguls, philanthropists, grassroots activists and others who are helping to pay legal fees related to their cause.

If Woodfox wins his petition for a writ of habeas corpus—Latin for "you have the body," a maneuver that does not address the question of innocence or guilt—he could be retried. Or, as his lawyers are banking on, he could reach a settlement with state prosecutors, who retained a private New Orleans firm to handle the case, that would permanently end his incarceration.

The office of Louisiana Attorney General James D. "Buddy" Caldwell would not comment for this article.

The Cruelty of Solitary Confinement

As much as the Angola Three's case spotlights such concerns as racial bias in jury selection, it brings to the fore the broad subject of solitary confinement in a nation that, according to 2005 U.S. Department of Justice data—the latest federal tally available—holds 80,000 prisoners under such terms on any given day.

"We're asking the federal court to consider what's taken place in the state, to consider that what happened with the jury is a constitutional violation and to set Woodfox free," said Allen-Bell, author of the article "Perception Profiling & Prolonged Solitary Confinement Viewed Through the Lens of the Angola 3 Case." "We're also pushing to change the status quo."

Published in the summer 2012 edition of the University of California's Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, that research takes aim at what Allen-Bell and others contend is the arbitrary choosing of whom to remand to solitary confinement in prisons across the United States, a process that lacks streamlined criteria for such decisions and places no limits on the duration of confinement.

That, said Amnesty International spokeswoman Suzanne Trimel, is blatant hypocrisy: "The 40-year isolated incarceration of [Woodfox and Wallace] ... is a scandal that pushes the boundaries of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and flies in the face of international standards to which the United States is a party."

Being constrained in a 6-by-9-by-12-foot, windowless cell was inexpressibly difficult, the Angola Three's King, who spent 29 years in solitary confinement, told The Root. "You've got an iron bunk, suspended on the wall, and an iron bench, a small table, a commode and a sink," said King, whose jailhouse lawyering, alongside that of Woodfox and Wallace, did eventually result in Louisiana's solitarily confined inmates being allowed one hour, thrice weekly, in the prison yard.

Staying Strong in Isolation

Assuming that Woodfox is released, that leaves behind bars, at least for now, Wallace. His attorneys are also preparing to request his release.

Roughly a year ago, Woodfox and Wallace were transferred to separate Louisiana prisons, where they remain in solitary confinement and under conditions, King says, that are harsher than those at Angola. April 2013 will mark Woodfox and Wallace's 41st year in solitary confinement.

"There were some things in Angola that they don't practice at Wade Correctional Facility, where [Woodfox] is now," said King, now an Austin, Texas-based, world-traveling prison reformer and author of From the Bottom of the Heap, a 2008 memoir that has been revised and expanded. "He says the food at Angola was better—though food is generally bad in any prison—and the condition of the yard at Angola was better.

"He is separated from people with whom he was familiar," King continued. "And he is 70 miles farther away from his brother, who he can see now only while shackled and handcuffed. There are no contact visits like what he had in Angola. So of course, Albert feels these are added punishments."

Until the mid-1990s—when the Angola Three drew moral and financial support from a wide swath of people, including global activist Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop—the men represented themselves in court matters involving conditions at Angola and other concerns.

"We were motivated by what had us in confinement," King said, "and under those conditions, we had become politically aware and politically conscious of what was going on. We operated out of a sense of consciousness and the reality that there are flaws in this system that need to be fixed."