Freedom After 40 Years in Solitary?

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

Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King (
Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King (

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.”