By Wende Gozan Brown, Media Relations Director
Thirty nine years ago, three young black men were put in solitary confinement. Two are still there.
Collectively they have spent more than 100 years in isolation, most of it at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
The “Angola 3” maintain they were targeted for speaking out against inhumane treatment and racial segregation in the prison, and are now fighting for justice and recognition of their cruel, endless years in the hole.
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, originally convicted of unrelated cases of armed robbery, were convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1972. Robert King, locked up for robbery, was also convicted of murder once he was in the prison. The most fortunate of the three, his conviction was overturned in 2001, and he was released after 29 years of isolation.
Meanwhile, the continued detention of Woodfox and Wallace showcases the failing of the Louisiana justice system. In a new report, Amnesty International notes that no physical evidence links Woodfox and Wallace to the murder. On top of that, potentially favorable DNA evidence was lost. The convictions were based on questionable inmate testimony. Best of all, it seems prison officials bribed the main eyewitness into giving statements against the men. Even the widow of the prison guard has expressed skepticism, saying in 2008,
“If they did not do this – and I believe that they didn’t – they have been living a nightmare for 36 years!”
I’m not sure what is most disturbing: that Louisiana has allowed these men to languish on seemingly-fabricated charges? That Woodfox and Wallace, now senior citizens with clean conduct records, are characterized as potential threats? Or that by holding the men under such tight quarters, the state has been in breach of its own prison policies for the past 15 years? The so called “nature of the original reason for lockdown” is no longer allowed to hold a prisoner in isolation, yet it has been invoked more than 150 times for these men.
Woodfox and Wallace watch life pass them from spaces barely larger than my bathroom. Eventually moved from Angola to two other prisons, they are allowed outside three hours a week in a small cage. For four more hours they can shower or walk alone along the corridor. Visits and telephone calls are few. According to their lawyers, this has contributed to a host of health problems, including osteoarthritis, hypertension and insomnia.
Woodfox’s murder conviction has been overturned twice, once by a U.S. district judge, and a State Judicial Commission recommended that Wallace’s conviction be reversed — but appeals and a refusal to see the light have kept the men in hell. As they fight their murder convictions, the Angola 3 are suing Louisiana authorities, asserting that their prolonged isolation is cruel and unusual punishment and violates the U.S. Constitution.
We can support their fight. Write LA Governor Bobby Jindal and, if he doesn’t act, contact U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Remind them that the United States has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Convention against Torture, and that this insane confinement also contravenes the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
This is not a hopeless case. As Robert King said,
“I do believe that there is something that can be done and a pro-active position in the case can help… The ripples in the pond are increasing and we need to see some waves… and these are the things that keep me going. I can see the waves coming from the ripples.”