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Life on Permanent Lockdown

Could the case of the Angola 3 test the use of solitary confinement in American prisons?

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are believed to have been held in solitary confinement for longer than any inmate in America—37 years, to be precise, nearly all of them spent in 6-by-9 cells at Louisiana's notorious Angola prison. For 23 hours a day, they pass the time in their cells as best they can. For one hour, they are allowed out to take a shower or a stroll along the cell block. Three days a week, they can use that hour to exercise alone in a fenced yard, as long as the weather is good.

Wallace and Woodfox were originally sent to Angola for armed robbery offenses in the early 1970s. When a young guard named Brent Miller was stabbed to death in 1972, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of his murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, although, as courts have since acknowledged, there were numerous flaws with their trials: faulty evidence, manufactured testimony, and bribed witnesses, as well as inadequate legal representation and discriminatory jury selection. Along with another prisoner, Robert King, the men became known as the Angola 3, and for three decades they protested their innocence in court, maintaining that they had been targeted because they had helped found a Black Panthers chapter at Angola and were organizing for better conditions at the prison.
 

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In recent years a federal judge ordered Louisiana to release Woodfox and give him a new trial; another judge recommended a new trial for Wallace. (King was released in 2001 when a judge overturned his conviction, after he had spent 29 years in solitary.) Yet the state has mounted endless appeals and procedural roadblocks to keep the pair locked away. Wallace and Woodfox are now 68 and 62, respectively.

After my requests to interview both men were denied, I began a correspondence with them. Their letters reveal a sense of resolve amid the bleakness of their situation. "I use stacks of books for exercise and thereafter I am either writing or reading. I have no time for foolishness. It's really that serious. I am in a struggle against the state of Louisiana on two strategic fronts, and hear me when I tell you they are not fighting fair," Wallace wrote to me recently. "The sense of hopelessness is endless and if not fought can break a person! (I bend, but don't break!)" Woodfox wrote.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande made a persuasive case that solitary confinement is a form of torture. He cited lab studies in which baby monkeys raised in isolation became "profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves." Humans, it turns out, experience similarly acute anguish when deprived of social contact. When Gawande examined the cases of prisoners who had been kept alone for prolonged periods, he found that they disintegrated, mentally and physically. They became depressed, hallucinated, were unable to remember basic facts, and in some instances became catatonic. "Without sustained social interaction," Gawande concluded, "the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury."

The use of so-called extended lockdown has grown exponentially since the 1980s and is now an almost routine part of the American criminal justice system. The practice has been denounced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, among others. Yet it has never aroused much public opposition, even among progressives who are outraged by reports of psychological abuse from Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.

For the past decade, the Angola 3 have also challenged the use of solitary confinement in a civil lawsuit in federal court, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." For years, this case went nowhere. But on April 3, a federal magistrate judge at the US District Court in Baton Rouge allowed the lawsuit to proceed. It will likely be heard in the fall, and if the court makes a broad ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, it could potentially affect the more than 25,000 prisoners who live in complete isolation in supermax prisons or lockdown units around the country.

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