Life in Solitary Confinement: 12,775 Days Alone

Around midday today, Central Time, two men in Angola Prison in Louisiana will quietly mark the moment, 35 years ago exactly, when the bars of solitary confinement cells closed behind them. They will likely spend the moment in their 6 by 9 concrete cells reading, or writing letters to their hundreds of supporters around the world. And most of America and the rest of the world will still have never heard of them, or that in the United States of America, it is still possible to spend a life sentence in solitary confinement without interruption and without any real means of appeal. Americans shamefully imagine such things happen offshore in places like Guantanamo, or in totalitarian countries half a world away. Not here, though. Certainly not here.

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are those men, who along with Robert King, are known as the Angola Three. (King established his innocence and was released in 2001 after almost 30 years in solitary.) Collectively, the three of them have spent 100 years in solitary confinement. Wallace asked this week, "Where is the justice?"

It was also on this day in 1972, that Brent Miller, a young, white, newlywed prison guard, was discovered in a pool of his own blood, stabbed 32 times. Brent Miller was a popular, athletic, handsome local boy who dreamed of leaving Angola with his young wife as soon as he could get a job in the nearby paper mill or up in Oklahoma. He never got a chance.

And based on long-lost evidence uncovered by a new team of attorneys and investigators over the past year and a half, it is clear Miller hasn't received justice, either. Woodfox and Wallace were placed in solitary and under suspicion of the murder the day it happened, and were later convicted of Miller's murder following trials highlighted by key testimony by inmate witnesses who were promised items such as cigarettes and the warden's recommendation of a pardon for their testimony. One of the state's inmate eyewitness was a legally blind certified sociopath. Another inmate repeatedly confessed to the murder to his fellow inmates and assured them that the prison administration knew he was guilty, but wanted to make examples of Woodfox and Wallace, known activists and Black Panthers.

But this anniversary, unlike the 34 preceding it, has a tinge of hope to it. Wallace and Woodfox, convicted separately of Miller's murder by all-white juries, have finally begun to attract some measurable attention.

Two very important legal cases are wending their way through the courts on this anniversary. The criminal case addresses the now publicly documented payoffs of the state's key witness in the murder trials. The other tackles a legal issue that could reverberate across the country -- is indefinite solitary confinement a violation of the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment?

By what few and murky laws exist, prisoners assigned to solitary should receive access to due process by which they can appeal their placement in solitary. For the Angola Three, the biweekly "hearings," during which they may use their clean records of good behavior to argue for their release back into the general population, long ago devolved into farce. Wallace reports that for decades now, he has been led into the room for his hearings, has not not permitted to present his arguments, and has been simply handed a piece of paper, already filled out, stating that the prison administration has denied his appeal and that he will stay in solitary because of the "nature of the original offense." The appeals boards do not pretend anymore that there is anything meaningful in the charade. The same fiction plays out for Woodfox and did for King during his years on the solitary block.

At least once, according to Wallace, current warden Burl Cain offered to release Woodfox and Wallace back into the general population if they renounced their political views and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. (The megalomaniacal Cain is to media attention what a lobotomized moth is to an incandescent bulb; he wrote a book and has done hundreds of interviews about his "reformist" approach to penology, which involves converting prisoners to Christianity and holding the hands of those being executed so that his face would be the last they'd see before Christ's.)

According to Sam Spital, one of the attorneys from Hollland & Knight, which represents the Angola Three in the civil suit, the lawsuit also challenges that there is "no legitimate penological reason for keeping our clients in CCR, and (2) there is persuasive evidence that, in light of the duration of their confinement and their advancing age, our clients are at risk of and/or have already suffered serious physical and psychological harm -- it is cruel and unusual punishment to keep our clients in CCR, which violates the Eighth Amendment." Should the suit go to trial as expected within the next few months and should a verdict be rendered in the three men's favor, the face of (and regulations surrounding) solitary confinement in America could change drastically for good. The case could serve as a precedent, forcing accountability by prison administrators to reserve solitary as a last-ditch and temporary measure with sharply defined restrictions. In an age of Supermax prisons where huge populations of prisoners spends months and years in solitary, the ramifications could be enormous.

For the Angola Three, it could mean monetary damages, and release from solitary into the general population at Angola.

George Kendall, lead attorney on the case says, "We are moving to trial and we are quite hopeful to win."

Among the evidence are reports made by leading psychologists noting the terrible toll of solitary over long periods. King has spent the six years since his release campaigning for the release of his friends, and helping expose the abuses inside Angola Prison. Of his 29 years he said, "Being in solitary was terrible. It was a nightmare. My soul still cries from all that I witnessed and endured. It does more than cry -- it mourns, continuously. I saw men so desperate that they ripped prison doors apart, starved and mutilated themselves. It takes every scrap of humanity to stay focused and sane in this environment. The pain and suffering are everywhere, constantly with you. But, it's was also so much more than that. I had dreams and they were beautiful dreams. I used to look forward to the nights when I could sleep and dream. There's no describing the day-to-day assault on your body and your mind and the feelings of hopelessness and despair. By any logical and apparent reasons, I should be anything but what I am today, but sometimes the spirit is stronger than the circumstances." King now runs a small candy business making pralines, which he calls "Freelines," from a recipe he had used to make the candy in a tin can in his solitary cell.

In 2003, when the ACLU was handling the civil case, a Louisiana magistrate was shocked by the filings she read: "The present matter, of course, involves confinements of 28 to nearly 33 years, durations so far beyond the pale that this court has not found anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence."

Late last year, the criminal case for Herman Wallace took a great step forward when evidence was presented at a hearing held inside Angola's prison walls, proving that a prison snitch who served as the state's main witness was paid for his testimony against Wallace with a carton of cigarettes a week for life, living quarters in a house on a hill with his own room and a TV, no work duty, and privileges unheard of by other inmates. It was further shown that the administration and many of the guards lobbied on behalf of the inmate for a pardon, which he eventually got.

The commissioner who presided over the hearing recommended that Wallace's conviction immediately be overturned. The judge in that case granted two extensions to the state to prepare a response, and both parties now await a decision on when and if Herman Wallace may see his day in court again. Ever hopeful and almost never bitter, Wallace said from his cell this week, "Albert and I have been in solitary confinement for 12,775 days. We're two men who are innocent of a crime we never committed. The state just won't let go."

Meanwhile, Woodfox, who was tried separately albeit on essentially the same evidence and testimony, has filed his last-ditch habeas corpus appeal in the hope that new evidence and developments in the other cases might provide him one last shot at freedom.

Said Scott Fleming, one of the criminal defense attorneys representing the Woodfox and Wallace, "I've been representing Albert and Herman for nearly a decade. Even so, they were placed in solitary confinement before I was born. Their cases are getting more serious consideration from the courts than they ever have, and we are all hoping this nightmare is nearing an end."

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