After 41 Years in Solitary, 'Angola Three' Prisoner Renews Fight for Justice

After serving more than 41 years in solitary confinement, the longest sentence in isolation ever served by a U.S. inmate, Angola Three prisoner Albert Woodfox had a new day in court on Thursday to seek damages against Louisiana prison authorities for constitutional rights violations.

Woodfox, 67, was arrested for armed robbery in 1971 and sentenced to 50 years at Louisiana State Penitentiary — also known as Angola, a prison built on a former slave plantation that quickly became one of the most notorious facilities in the country. He was placed in solitary in April 1972, where he has remained ever since, for allegedly killing a guard, Officer Brent Miller, during riots in the prison that year. He was transferred from Angola to the David Wade correctional center in unincorporated Claiborne Parish in 2010, but was immediately placed in closed-cell restriction there as well.

Woodfox is seeking permission from the U.S. Fifth Circuit appeals court in New Orleans to sue prison officials for violating his constitutional rights, including the Eighth Amendment, which protects prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment.

“This is one more step in what has been a very long, long path towards justice,” Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, told Common Dreams “[Albert] is still sitting in a tiny solitary confinement cell waiting to hear from an appeals court… Combined, the Angola Three have served more than 100 years in solitary confinement.”

The Guardian reports:

Apart from a three-year period in general population, Woodfox has spent 23 hours of every day alone in a 6-by-8-foot cell. His only view is of the prison hallway. In the last hour of the day, he is permitted to walk the hallway, shower, and occasionally walk through the exercise yard — alone. In January, he testified that prison guards forced him to undergo daily strip and cavity searches. In 2008, he described (pdf) the claustrophobia and panic attacks that plagued him in a solitary camp known as ‘the Dungeon,’ where prisoners are confined at all times except for a 15-minute shower break. “When I have an attack I feel like I am being smothered, it is very difficult to breathe, and I sweat profusely; it seems like the cell walls close in and are just inches from my face,” he stated.

But David Wade prison officials are arguing (pdf) that because Woodfox transferred to their facility in 2010, his four-year solitary confinement there should be considered a separate sentence from his decades in Angola — and that four years in isolation does not constitute “atypical and significant hardship.” Authorities also claim that qualified immunity protects them from liability in Woodfox’s case, and that as a prisoner, he could not have expected to have his liberties protected.

Woodfox’s lawyers counter (pdf) that officials’ arguments for keeping Woodfox in solitary confinement are “sham proceedings” and “meaningless board reviews.” They say prison authorities could not have been unaware that decades of solitary confinement counted as “atypical” punishment, and should not be able to invoke qualified immunity in this case. “Immunizing Defendants-Appellants also contravenes the letter of qualified immunity law, which is intended to protect public servants who reasonably believed their conduct was lawful—not shield those who conduct themselves with wanton indifference to the law,” their brief states.

Woodfox’s conviction for the guard’s murder has been overturned three times. Federal courts ruled that the trial had violated his constitutional rights through racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, and suppression of exculpatory evidence.

But instead of freeing Woodfox, Louisiana attorney general Buddy Caldwell decided to contest the most recent federal decision in 2008 and sent him back to live in isolation at Angola.

“Then and now, the fundament of the suit has been this: the continued lockdown confinement of [Albert Woodfox] without legitimate penological interests, in violation of the Constitution,” the lawsuit states.

“Louisiana cannot extend the abuses and injustice against Albert Woodfox another day,” said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Louisiana authorities are leading a campaign of vengeance instead of upholding justice. Keeping Woodfox in solitary confinement for over four decades is a dark stain on human rights in the United States and globally. Louisiana must withdraw its legal appeal and allow the federal court ruling to stand. Should this not occur, the Court of Appeal should rule in the interests of justice and pave the way for Albert Woodfox’s release.”

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, in October 2013 called for Albert Woodfox’s immediate release from solitary confinement. “Four decades in solitary confinement can only be described as torture,” he said.