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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 6:00 AM EDT

Most recent attempts to challenge the use of solitary confinement in court have failed, although none of the prisoners involved have been isolated for as long as Wallace and Woodfox. American courts have tended to define "cruel and unusual punishment" as conditions that deprive a prisoner of "basic human needs." In the case of the Angola 3, the state of Louisiana seeks to define these needs narrowly as "adequate food, sleep, clothing, shelter or medical attention," and has insisted that prisoners in solitary are provided with all of these things. In response, the Angola 3's lawyers argue that "the conditions of extended lockdown must be considered both cumulatively and durationally." Years in solitary have certainly deprived Woodfox and Wallace of adequate exercise and sleep, they say. More significantly, they also urge the court to acknowledge "social contact and environmental stimulation as basic human needs."

Wallace and Woodfox have, say their lawyers, endured both physical injury and "severe mental anguish and other psychological damage" from living most of their adult lives in lockdown. According to medical reports submitted to the court, the men suffer from arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. Even the psychologist brought in by the state confirmed these findings. When US Magistrate Judge Docia Dalby allowed the Eighth Amendment lawsuit to proceed, she said that the men had been isolated for "durations so far beyond the pale that this court has not found anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence."

Dalby also allowed the lawyers to expand their case—to challenge not only how the men are being confined, but why. Wallace and Woodfox are not being kept in solitary as a disciplinary or safety measure, their lawyers contend. Prison records show that the pair has had no serious disciplinary violations for more than 20 years. The only reason ever given for their continued isolation, in every one of the 90-day reviews they have had over the past three decades, is "nature of original reason for lockdown." When the federal judge ordered Woodfox released in 2008, he described him as a "frail, sickly" man with "an exemplary conduct record." The lawyers have assembled compelling evidence that the men have been isolated for more than 30 years for their beliefs, not their behavior, and that therefore their First Amendment rights have been violated, too. In other words, their lawyers plan to argue that Wallace and Woodfox are essentially political prisoners.

This is not an entirely new legal argument, but Wallace and Woodfox happen to have unusually strong evidence to support it, mostly in the form of public comments by Angola's warden, Burl Cain. For instance, when the judge decided to allow this claim to move forward, she cited an affidavit taken from a New Orleans schoolteacher who questioned Cain at a public event in 2000:

I started out the conversation by saying something like: "I was wondering if you could tell me anything about the 'Angola 3'?" "You mean Woodfox?" Cain responded. "I know all about them." He continued, "it's not obvious" that they should be let out of extended lockdown, they were "not good men," they "haven't reformed their political beliefs," and would be disruptive to the prison environment. Cain characterized the three inmates as violent and said they would incite other inmates to violence if let into the general prison population.

At one point, I asked, "So they're political prisoners?" Cain responded, "Well, yes. Well no, I don't like the word political."

And in a deposition last year, Cain states that Wallace and Woodfox are "still hooked up" to "Black Panther revolutionary actions." Even if Woodfox were not guilty of the murder of the prison guard, Cain says, he would still keep him in solitary. "I still know he is 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 kinds of problems, more than I could stand."

Now, the Angola 3's lawyers have been granted the right to file an amended claim and conduct further discovery, which will focus in part on gathering more evidence that Wallace and Woodfox are being kept in solitary confinement not because of what they have done or what they might do, but because of what they believe. Finding examples probably won’t be difficult. Louisiana attorney general James "Buddy" Caldwell, an ambitious Democrat elected in 2007, has characterized the Angola 3 to the press as political radicals and calls Albert Woodfox "the most dangerous man on the planet."

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