Albert Woodfox, who spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement for a crime he may not have committed, could soon be released.

U.S. District Judge James J. Brady ruled this week that Woodfox, 68, should be released and should not be retried because of “exceptional circumstances”, including his age and poor health,  but also the “lack of confidence in the state to provide a fair trial…”

Louisiana’s Attorney General has appealed the ruling and obtained an injunction on Woodfox’s release.  The AG insists that Woodfox is guilty of murdering a prison guard.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals hasn’t ruled on the case yet, but set a deadline.  The case must be decided before 1 p.m. on Friday or Woodfox will be released anyway.

Woodfox and Herman Wallace were accused in 1972 of killing Brent Miller, a prison guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.  A third inmate, Robert King, was never charged with the murder, but suspected.  The three became known as the Angola 3.  Activists argued for years following the accusations that there was no evidence in the case.  All 3 men were placed in solitary confinement from that moment forward, which was also decried as inhumane.

Woodfox was originally imprisoned on armed robbery.  He said that he brought up injustices at the prison, including segregation, racism, corruption, and rape.  He said that is why he was targeted for the murder.   King was freed after his conviction in the killing of a fellow inmate in 2001 was overturned.  Herman Wallace was freed in 2013 when a judge vacated his conviction.  He died a few days later of liver cancer.

Woodfox’s conviction was actually overturned last year, but he was to remain in prison awaiting a new trial.

“With today’s order, the court would see fit to set free a twice-convicted murderer who is awaiting trial again for the brutal slaying of Corrections Officer Brent Miller,” Louisiana Justice Department spokesman Aaron Sadler said.

Woodfox’s attorneys are demanding their client be released immediately, “Now, because the state’s key witnesses are deceased, and Mr. Woodfox’s alibi witnesses are also deceased, there is no practical way for there to be a third trial which comports with the standards of a fair, American trial,” said George Kendall and Carine Williams in a statement.

Amnesty International praised the judge’s decision to release Woodfox and bar a retrial saying it is a “momentous step toward justice.”

“Woodfox has spent 43 years trapped in a legal process riddled with flaws,” said Jasmine Heiss, a senior campaigner for the human rights group, “The only humane action that the Louisiana authorities can take now is to ensure his immediate release.”

Prosecutors have repeatedly denied that Woodfox is being held in solitary confinement instead asserting that he is being held in “closed cell restricted” confinement to protect other prisoners and guards.  Watchdog groups say that CCR is just another term for solitary.

“Contrary to popular lore, Woodfox and Wallace have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system,” the AG wrote in 2013. “They have always been able to communicate freely with other inmates and prison staff as frequently as they want. They have televisions on the tiers which they watch through their cell doors.” He went on to say they are allowed to get items from the canteen, shower, get phone calls, listen to music, read and write.

King, however, disagrees.  He said he spent 29 years in solitary confinement.  He serves as an advisor for Solitary Watch, a project devoted to research on the mental and physical effects of solitary confinement.

He said that he still suffers from the mental effects, “I get confused…The brain somehow won’t register things…”

The Angola 3 case spurred the creation of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 and drew the United Nations’ attention. Some activists said that the Angola 3 were political prisoners because of their affiliation with the Black Panthers. Several U.S. lawmakers have pointed to the case as a sign that reforms are needed. Even the widow of the slain guard said she thinks the men are innocent.

Their plight has also spawned at least three documentaries, including “Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation,” “Herman’s House” and “In the Land of the Free… ,” which was narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson.

Law enforcement experts say that solitary confinement is necessary, considering the fact that placing gang members, sexual predators, or other violent inmates in general population would endanger others.

However, activists say that solitary confinement is overused and little understood.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness said that solitary confinement has been controversial since 1890.  The practice was diminished in the decades following that year, but saw a resurgence in the 1970s. In the wake of the “hard on crime” politics, most of the other controversial practices used today in the justice system arose. To name a few: the amount of mentally ill in prisons vs. hospitals, three strikes rule (officially began in 1993), war on drugs (began in 1971), and the shifting of power from judges to prosecutors.

The NAMI also said that the rise in prisoners suffering from mental illness along with the spike in constructed “supermax” prisons has contributed to the rise of solitary confinement.  Most people placed in solitary confinement are put there for behavior that is constituted as “acting out”, a symptom of their illness, or even an infraction that is trivial (i.e. having an unapproved book).

Watchdog groups estimate that 80,000 Americans serve in solitary confinement every year and 25,000 of them are there long-term despite the known dangers.

The use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention centers is also a point of controversy.


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