Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.
After four decades of solitary confinement in the nation's most populated maximum-security prison—and one of its most historically brutal—a member of the internationally known "Angola Three" has reasonable cause to expect that he will soon be released, his attorneys and supporters say. The request to set free Albert Woodfox, 65, is being heard by the same federal judge who in 2008 ordered that Woodfox be released, a ruling that Louisiana prosecutors successfully appealed and blocked.
Woodfox and Herman Wallace, now 71, were placed in solitary confinement in 1972—theirs is the longest-running solo detention of which human rights group Amnesty International is aware—after being convicted of killing a white guard at Angola prison, the slave plantation-turned-Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Both men have consistently said that they were falsely accused and that their conviction was the means by which prison officials punished the Angola Three for their membership in the Black Panther Party. Also a member of that trio is Robert Hillary King, now 69, who was released in 2001 after plea-bargaining to a crime unrelated to the murder, a crime for which he was never officially charged, although prison officials insisted that he was involved.
As prison activists, the Angola Three had challenged ongoing, unpunished rape of inmates—including a system of "sexual slavery" that prison officials eventually acknowledged—racial segregation and other adverse prison conditions. The three, who did not know one another before landing at the 18,000-acre prison farm—named for the town where it is located, roughly an hour's drive from Baton Rouge—initially were convicted in the 1960s of assorted robbery charges that they do not contest.
Concerning Woodfox, his lawyers say that this time around, they believe they have unequivocally affirmed several points favoring their client:
* An all-white, all-male jury—seated in a jurisdiction where almost half the residents are black—was wholly disinclined to consider that the Angola Three, who are black men, were innocent of killing a white prison guard, 23-year-old Brent Miller.
* State prosecutors bribed the sole, alleged witness to the killing with a weekly pack of cigarettes and better living quarters in exchange for reversing his initial claim that none of the three was at the crime scene. Prosecutors and prison officials withheld details of that bribe and other essential information during the trial; have since contended that they lost evidence, including scrapings from the dead guard's fingernails; and refused to release inmate fingerprints to compare with fingerprints left near Miller's corpse that the Angola Three's lawyers obtained.
* Subsequent court proceedings, including Woodfox's 1993 retrial, were tainted by a pattern of excluding blacks from juries and of judges exclusively choosing whites as foremen of grand juries that decide whom to indict for trial. For that 1993 retrial, a white grand jury foreman with a high school diploma was chosen over a black candidate who had a college degree.
Racism's Pervasive Influence
"We had a jury of angry white men in 1972," Nicholas Trenticosta, a lawyer from New Orleans who mostly handles death-penalty cases and is representing Woodfox, told The Root. " … Pure, flat-out racism is driving this train."
To amplify what the Angola Three's supporters say was the prevailing racial climate at the prison, they point to a 2008 court hearing during which Trenticosta questioned Burl Cain, installed in 1995 as Angola's warden and widely viewed as a prison reformer who has overseen a decline in violence at Angola.
Trenticosta: OK. What is it about Albert Woodfox that gives you such concern?
Cain: The thing about him is that he wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize. He wants to be defiant.
Trenticosta: Well, let me ask you this. Let's just, for the sake of argument, assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of [Officer] Brent Miller.
Cain: OK. I would still keep him in [solitary]. I still know he has a propensity for violence. I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand. And I would have the [whites] chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict, and I believe that. He has to stay in a cell while he's at Angola.
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."
Their activism, he added, helped them maintain their sanity and focus.
"After being in there for so long, you're not desensitized to the situation, but you build up a resistance, so to speak, against the wear and tear. You're in there … so you have to become inured to being in there," said King, who, postprison, has lectured and lobbied globally against solitary confinement, conferring with former South African President Nelson Mandela and actor-activist Harry Belafonte, among others.
According to King, who recently spoke by telephone with Woodfox, his friend's optimism regarding his pending court case is clear. "His spirits—notwithstanding the pressures of all this—seem pretty uplifted," said King. "He read the argument. He read the brief, both sides. He imagines that the lawyers did a good job. His expectation is high. Ask him if he'll be coming home and he tells you, straight up, 'Yes.' "
Even amid that hopefulness, there's reason for caution.
Californian Marina Drummer—a Bay Area nonprofit executive, coordinator of the Free Angola 3 campaign and co-founder of Solitary Watch—said: "I can't say I'm [unequivocally] optimistic. We're dealing with the state of Louisiana … It seems as if they'll do anything to cover their tracks. If we were going on the issue of justice, they'd all be out by now."
The state could, as it did previously, appeal to have a ruling in Woodfox's favor overturned, says attorney Allen-Bell.
After her own recent visit with Woodfox, Allen-Bell had this observation: "What I do not hear from [him] is anger or bitterness. I see them as civil rights icons, which they're very humble about … They don't see themselves as anyone special. They were doing the human work that humanitarians do." She quotes Woodfox: " 'We were doing what Panthers do. This is the penalty you pay for doing this kind of stuff.' "
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the translation of "habeas corpus."
Freelancer Katti Gray specializes in covering criminal justice, health care, higher education and human resources. She is a contributing editor at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in New York City.