Reforming Prison's Harshest Tactic
The Angola 3 case may help change the arbitrary and sometimes abusive use of solitary confinement.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 80,000 inmates nationwide (more than 2.5 million people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails) were in solitary confinement on any given day in 2005, which is the latest year for which federal data are available. Given that blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population, they also disproportionately account for those remanded to solitary confinement.
Concerning the Angola 3, the prison's warden, Burl Cain, has affirmed that he would never transfer Woodfox out of solitary confinement and into the general population. "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," Cain told questioner Nicholas Trenticosta, Woodfox's lawyer, during a 2008 court hearing.
Case May Bring Crucial Change
"If we prevail, the benefit will be extended to everyone who is in a similar situation," Trenticosta, of New Orleans, told The Root.
"What happens in Mr. Woodfox's case will be instrumental. It will be crucial," says Parnell Herbert, a New Orleans playwright and Free the Angola 3 coalition member.
Apart from Woodfox's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a civil lawsuit seeking $5 million in compensation for an extended and unmerited solitary confinement has also been filed on behalf of the Angola 3.
The Angola 3 supporters contend that thus far, Louisiana's attorney general, James "Buddy" Caldwell, has been typical of prosecutors who refuse to admit that they made a mistake. (His office would not comment for this article.)
"We're not saying solitary confinement is never necessary. We're saying this is not the way to go about it," Allen-Bell says.
She continues: "The greater issue is one of prisoners routinely in this country being thrown into solitary cells for no infraction whatsoever. They're subject to what I call perception profiling: A woman who complained of being raped [by a prison guard] has the baby, then gets thrown into solitary. People who [are gay] get thrown into solitary. [So do] people who were in gangs when they were in their 20s, have tattoos on their arms still, but they're 35 now and not involved in gangs. This an arbitrary system with no legal criteria for putting people into solitary and no legal means of getting them out."
Says freed Angola 3 member King, now a globetrotting prison reformer whose 2008 memoir, From the Bottom of the Heap, has been revised and expanded: "The broader aspect of this -- and this is what keeps Herman and Albert and myself going -- is that we are just the tip of the iceberg. We have to convince the public of that. We have to let folks know that what's going on with regard to solitary confinement in America is totally reprehensible."
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.