Reforming Prison's Harshest Tactic

The Angola 3 case may help change the arbitrary and sometimes abusive use of solitary confinement.

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This is the second of two parts. Click here to read part 1, "Freedom After 40 Years in Solitary?"

(The Root) -- In December 2012 the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to curb the use of solitary confinement in that state's prisons, broadly decrying it as "extreme isolation" that imperils the physical and psychological well-being of inmates on solo lockdown and risks undermining prison safety overall.

Also in 2012, Maine lawmakers -- including a Republican governor considered tough on crime -- voted to formally ratchet back the use of solitary confinement in that state. In addition, Congress hosted a rare special hearing on the practice, highlighting the fact that the United States has no federal guidelines precisely defining when solitary confinement should begin, when it should end and which infractions merit such an added punishment for prisoners.

Prison watchers and reformers, however, say that incremental activity in 2012 does not in itself suggest that the nation is anywhere near a wholesale crackdown on what many deem to be arbitrary decisions about who is placed in solitary confinement. But in Louisiana, where the remaining two members of the Angola 3 are approaching 41 years in solitary confinement, there is cautious optimism.

"It's exactly the kind of movement on this issue that we've been pushing for," said attorney and law professor Angela Allen-Bell of Southern University Law Center. Allen-Bell is a member of Free the Angola 3, an international coalition of attorneys, human rights groups, grassroots activists and moneyed benefactors who are helping to pay legal fees related to the cause of Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King.

The three black men have consistently held that white officials of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola punished them for organizing an arm of the Black Panther Party at the facility -- and, as self-taught jailhouse lawyers, for challenging systematic rape of inmates, racial segregation and other ills -- by falsely claiming that the men killed a 23-year-old white prison guard in 1972. All three, who did not know one another before Angola, landed at the prison in the 1960s after being convicted of robberies that did not involve physical assault.

Hope for One of the Angola 3

Lawyers for Woodfox, 65, say that they expect a favorable ruling in his current petition to be released, which will be heard "any day now" by the same federal judge who ordered him freed in 2008. (State prosecutors successfully appealed to have that ruling reversed.)

But Angola 3 attorneys are convinced that, this time around, they have more emphatically proved the official corruption that resulted in the 1972 conviction of Woodfox and of Wallace, 71, the other Angola 3 member still on solo lockdown.

King, 69, was released in 2001, after accepting a plea bargain on charges unrelated to the murder. King, who spent 29 years in solitary confinement, was never formally charged in the killing, although Angola officials steadfastly claimed that he was involved.

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