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36 Years of Solitude

Why is Bobby Jindal’s administration determined to keep Albert Woodfox in permanent lockdown?

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 8:30 PM EST

Caldwell's fixation on keeping Wallace and Woodfox locked up mystifies some observers of the case. But in addition to any political motives he may have, Woodfox's lawyer, Nick Trenticosta, suggests, Caldwell may be seeking to protect the reputation of one of his closest associates and childhood friends, John Sinquefield.

As the district attorney who prosecuted the 1973 case against Woodfox, Sinquefield stands to be tainted by revelations that the state's key witnesses were compromised—and that he failed to provide key information to the defense team. Magistrate Judge Noland has already criticized Sinquefield's behavior in Woodfox's 1998 trial, where he was called as a witness. After Brown's testimony had been read into the record, Sinquefield, who's now the chief assistant district attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish, took the stand to describe the dead witness' delivery of his original testimony. Brown, said Sinquefield, had "testified in a good, strong voice, he was very open, he was very spontaneous, he answered questions quickly, and he was very fact specific." He also declared, "I was proud of the way he testified. I thought it took a lot of courage."

In her report, Noland pointed out that Sinquefield's testimony was highly unorthodox. She noted that "a prosecutor's statements suggesting that he has personal knowledge of a witness's credibility" meets the Supreme Court's criteria for "egregious prosecutorial misconduct."

Caldwell, for his part, has made clear that he will go to great lengths to keep Woodfox and Wallace in prison, and preferably in solitary confinement (where both men were returned after their brief respite last year). If need be, he says, he will personally prosecute Woodfox for a third time for the Miller murder. And if at any point it looks as if Woodfox will be returned to society—whether on bail or through exoneration—Caldwell has said he intends to launch a prosecution on what he claims are several 40-year-old charges of rape and robbery for which the prisoner was never prosecuted.

Good luck, says Aberle, who notes that Caldwell is referring to an arrest record from the '60s. Such charges were then commonly used to hold black men, he says, but seldom stuck because they had literally been pulled off a list of existing unsolved rape cases. "Nothing ever happened with any of them," Aberle says. Caldwell, he adds, "would have to make a case with witnesses he couldn't come up with 40 years ago."

After Caldwell, the man who appears most determined to keep Woodfox and Wallace behind bars, is Angola's current warden, Burl Cain. Known for his prison evangelizing, Cain has set up chapels around the grounds and a host of Bible study classes and other religious activities for prisoners. As described in a glowing 2008 article in the Baptist Press:

Once called the bloodiest prison in America, the Louisiana State Prison at Angola now has a new reputation as a place of hope for more than 5,000 inmates who live out their life sentences without parole. Many inmates know they'll leave the prison walls only when they die, yet despite their circumstances, there is joy in their hearts.
Credit for this unprecedented transformation is given to its one-of-a-kind warden, Burl Cain, who governs the massive prison on the Mississippi River delta with an iron fist and an even stronger love for Jesus.

The article notes Cain's special dedication to delivering souls from the death chamber into the hands of Christ. When he supervised his first execution as warden, Cain said, "I didn't share Jesus" with the condemned man, and as he received the lethal injection, "I felt him go to hell as I held his hand." As Cain tells it, "I decided that night I would never again put someone to death without telling him about his soul and about Jesus." Cain believes that there is only one path toward rehabilitation, and it runs through Christian redemption. According to Wallace, Cain has at least once offered to release him and Woodfox from solitary if they renounced their political beliefs and accepted Christ as their savior.

If Cain did indeed make that offer, that's the extent of the mercy he's willing to show the men. "They chose a life of crime," he has said. "Every choice they made is theirs. They're crybabies crying about it. What they ought to do is look in the mirror and quit looking out." The appeals panel that reviewed Woodfox's grant of bail relied heavily on Cain's statements in deciding to keep the prisoner in custody. According to the court's stay of release, "The only testimony on whether Woodfox poses a threat of danger was the deposition of Warden Cain, who testified about his impressions of Woodfox's character and Woodfox's disciplinary record while in prison. The Warden stated his belief that Woodfox has not been rehabilitated and still poses a threat of violence to others."

In his deposition, Cain provided numerous examples of Woodfox's rule breaking: Prison guards, he reported, had discovered five pages of "pornography" in the prisoner's cell, which, Cain went on to say, "we believe can cause inmates to become predators on other inmates, because they see—the sexual thing arouses them. And so they're in an environment where there are no females, there is no sexual gratification other than whatever you can create yourself, and then what happens is…it causes homosexuality…and is counterproductive to moral rehabilitation." On another occasion, Woodfox was found "hollering and shaking the bars on his cell," a "very serious" offense, Cain said, because the inmate was "absolutely being defiant," behavior that could cause other inmates to "rack the bars" and even "cause a riot." Cain rattled off more charges against the man he called a "predator," ranging from throwing feces at other prisoners to threatening a hunger strike. Cain said that Woodfox had made a "telescopic" pole of compressed paper that could be used as a spear or a blowgun. Woodfox had also been found with an empty Clorox bottle, something escaping prisoners used as "flotation devices," according to Cain, when making their getaways down the nearby Mississippi River. The majority of these violations—25 of them over 36 years—had occurred more than 20 years earlier.

Cain has made clear that one of the reasons he thinks Woodfox and Wallace are dangerous is his belief that the prisoners are moles for the Black Panthers, who might take the opportunity to start a revolution in the prison if they are released from solitary. If they're let out of prison altogether, Cain suggests, they will take their militant agenda to the streets. In his deposition, he stated that Robert King is "only waiting, in my opinion, for them to get out so they can reunite."

"Reunited for what reason?" asked Nick Trenticosta.

"Because he passes out little cookies with the panther on them," Cain said, apparently referring to the logo of King's homemade candy business. (King began making pralines—which he now dubs "freelines"—while still in Angola, using a makeshift stove fashioned out of soda cans and fueled by toilet paper.) "If he passed out those cookies with KKK on them, it would be no different to me. He would be guilty. If you build your life on hatred and you're hung up back 20 or 30 years ago, and we have moved onto society past that, you can't go back reliving in the public. You're dangerous…You can keep until the cows come home; I'm never going to tell you he's not violent and dangerous, in my opinion. I just can't do it."

Asked by Trenticosta to assume, for a moment, that Woodfox was not guilty of killing Miller, Cain insisted that his treatment of the prisoner would remain unchanged.

"I would still keep him in CCR [solitary confinement]," he said. "I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them [Woodfox and Wallace]…He has to stay in a cell while he is at Angola."

Asked to define "Black Pantherism," Cain replied, "I have no idea. I have never been one. I know they hold their fists up, and I know that I read about them, and they advocated violence…Maybe they are nice good people, but he is not."

When Trenticosta pressed him on why Woodfox was dangerous, Cain grew angry. "What can I say? He's bad. He's dangerous. I believe it. He will hurt you…They better not let him out of prison." 

*Among the activists who have taken up the cause of the Angola 3 were Anita Roddick, the late founder of the Body Shop (who was also a Mother Jones board member) and her husband, Gordon. The Roddicks' family charity, the Roddick Foundation, contributed funding for this story.

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