"... The American prison system has made the cruel and unusual something common. Of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in this country, around 80,000 are held in solitary confinement or some form of isolation. ..."
“They could never break me. They might bend me a little bit. They may cause me a lot of pain. They may even take my life. But they will never be able to break me,” said Albert Woodfox from a prison payphone in Louisiana over two years ago. This was no bravado. Woodfox was the last of the prisoners known as the Angola 3 to be released, after four decades in solitary confinement. If he was not broken then, it seems he could never be.
A federal judge’s order on Monday for Woodfox’s unconditional release should see the Black Panther organizer leave Louisiana State Penitentiary. I say “should” be released, because this ruling is now the fourth ruling from a federal judge in so many decades that has ordered Woodfox free. Yet he has remained imprisoned by Louisiana State, held in solitary confinement–a punishment considered by international bodies including the U.N. to be a form of torture.
Woodfox, along with Robert King and Herman Wallace, was convicted of the killing of a prison guard in 1972 while already serving time for armed robbery. The evidence was scant and fierce racial bias infused the process, federal rulings have since asserted.
The judge’s decision this week should be final; in a rare judicial move, he barred another retrial. Having ordered Woodfox’s release in 2013, it’s understandable that Judge James Brady is taking extraordinary measures now. But the state has vowed to appeal, and the Attorney General has won a temporary stay of release. There’s no accounting for the ferocity with which the Louisiana Justice Department fought to keep the Angola 3 behind bars and in isolation. Unless, of course, we factor in the historic and continuing persecution of black liberation fighters by U.S. justice.
The American prison system has made the cruel and unusual something common. Of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in this country, around 80,000 are held in solitary confinement or some form of isolation. The traumatic impact of time in solitary was this week brought to the fore with the suicide of Kalief Browder, the 22-year-old former Rikers Island inmate who was held in the prison for three years without conviction. Two years of his jail time were in solitary confinement. His death has prompted rightful public outcry about the damage wrought by confining young people to tiny cells in isolation. No child should be held in solitary, and nor should any adult.
Wallace, the Angola 3 member released in 2013, after doctors determined the prisoner had only weeks to live, died three days after he was freed. What mercy: decades in solitary, freed only to die days later from advanced liver cancer. While imprisoned he spoke of the conditions under which he was held:
“Where we stay, we’re usually in the cell for 23 hours, and an hour out. I’m not ‘out’. I may come out of the hole here, but I’m still locked up on that unit. I’m locked up. I can’t get around that…Anywhere I go, I have to be in chains. Chains have become a part of my existence. And that’s one of the things that people have to fully understand. But understanding it is one thing, but experiencing it is quite another.”
Woodfox, now 68, is in poor health. He has been in solitary confinement for 43 years, longer than any other prisoner in the U.S. This alone should justify, nay necessitate, his immediate release. But Louisiana’s treatment of the Angola 3 merits fierce censure for its political and racial factors, which underpinned the case from its start. Louisiana State Penitentiary, the 18,000 acre prison compound known as Angola, is steeped in America’s darkest histories. The site was once a slave plantation, dubbed “Angola” in reference to the birthplace of the slaves held therein. From plantation to prison, Angola decimates black life.
Federal judges have cited racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, and suppression of exculpatory evidence in the proceedings. The murdered prison guard, 23-year-old Brent Miller, was stabbed 38 times. Court records note that not one white prisoner was questioned about the killing. An all white jury convicted Woodfox and Wallace within two hours. King, who was freed in 2001 after 29 years in solitary, was charged in connection to the guard’s killing but not convicted of the murder.
A bloody handprint found at the scene matched none of the accused men’s prints. The state’s key witness, the sole alleged eyewitness, who died before the Angola 3 were indicted for a second time, was later found to have only agreed to testify in return for a pardon from death row. The prison warden even said of this witness that “he was one who you could put words in his mouth.”
But Miller’s 1972 murder took place just one year after Woodfox and Wallace founded the first prison-based chapter of the Black Panther party. From within Angola’s cruel confines, they organized against segregation, sexual abuse, and inhumane working and living conditions. The Angola 3’s conviction and solitary confinement came contemporaneously with the FBI’s vicious COINTELPRO program to crush Black Panther and radical black liberation activity; BLP leaders were assassinated, imprisoned, surveilled, and harassed. Even a blunted Occam’s razor could not extract the persecution of the Angola 3 from this violently racist context. Institutional fears of black liberation struggle never waned, and the 3’s punishment continued accordingly.
Louisiana’s resistance to freeing Woodfox, despite numerous federal rulings, reads as a defensive scramble–a refusal to admit that the state has for decades been an agent of violent, torturous racist injustice. Instead, the Attorney General insists that Woodfox is a dangerous killer. Justice, to wit, the truth in this case, will not be countenanced. It’s a disgrace deserving of the fury that has blazed in Ferguson, Baltimore and beyond against white supremacy.
Woodfox deserves no less than this rage on his behalf. His commitment to black liberation, to the struggle to assert that black lives matter, has weathered four decades of torture. “If a cause is just noble enough, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders,” he told a documentarian. “And I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. So, therefore, they could never break me.”