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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

In March of 2008, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, paid a visit to Angola and met with Wallace and Woodfox. Four days later the two men, along with a handful of other prisoners, were moved out of lockdown cells and into a new "maximum security dormitory" that appeared to have been created expressly for them. Compared with others in the general prison population, they still faced serious restrictions. Yet it offered them a level of human contact that the two men had scarcely known since they were in their 20s. They were able to converse face to face, after decades of communicating through notes and third parties. "Every once in a while he'll put his arm around me or I'll put my arm around him," Albert wrote to a newsletter distributed to Angola 3 supporters. "It's those kind of things that make you human."

By the fall, Albert Woodfox's conviction had been overturned, and the court had ordered him released on bail while the state's appeal of this decision was pending. However, Caldwell said that he opposed the release "with every fiber of my being." Woodfox had been planning to stay with his niece while on bail. But his lawyers uncovered evidence that the state had emailed the neighborhood association of the gated community where she lived to inform them that a murderer was moving in next door. In December, Caldwell convinced the conservative 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals to stay Woodfox's release on bail.

By that time, both men had been thrown back into isolation, to an even harsher section known as the "dungeon"—tiny, windowless cells that they were allowed to leave for only 15 minutes a day, rather than an hour, to shower in an adjacent space. They had allegedly violated prison rules by conducting a three-way call and giving an interview to a prison radio broadcast. Negotiations in their Eighth Amendment case ground to a halt. They had experienced a mere eight months of what had passed as comparative freedom.

Then, in March this year, Wallace and Woodfox were subjected to a move by the state that added to the pain of their predicament: They were forcibly separated from one another, not by a wall or a few tiers of cells, but by 75 miles of Louisiana's alluvial plain. One morning in March, Albert Woodfox woke up to discover that Herman Wallace was gone from Angola. Wallace had managed to make a phone call to Jackie Sumell, an artist and pivotal member of the dedicated Angola 3 activist community. He explained that he'd been transferred to Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, a two-hour drive down the Mississippi, below Baton Rouge. Wallace reported that a warden had told him that Hunt marked a new beginning for him, and that he might even be introduced into the facility's general population, ending his years of solitary confinement for good.

Two months later, he is still in lockdown, with no sign of getting out. I was denied permission to visit either man, but Wallace explained in a letter that the separation has made their legal battle even more challenging.  "My presence here is designed to completely separate me from Albert. Such separation is designed to disrupt our effectiveness winning court decisions after court decisions. The move also makes matters 10 times worse for our attorneys who have to travel from one facility to the next to gather meaningful information. Albert and I can no longer iron out our thinking to make rational decisions for our attornies [sic] to embrace." Woodfox, meanwhile, offered a more poignant analysis of their separation: "There is an emotional toll, one that I would equate to the breaking up of a family during slavery in America. The pain and loss is beyond explanation."

In my correspondence with the two men, what struck me most was how lucid and determined they remained, despite their long years of isolation. In my most recent letter to Woodfox, I asked whether he thought his struggle in the courts would ever result in justice. He replied:

Who knows? Justice for me is abstract! The due process of the court is abstract. The law is abstract. To apply objective thought to the courts can drive you insane. I have no desire to go insane…

Justice means freedom for me, raises more questions than it answers. While I am a self educated man I am 62 years old. No past for the last 40 years. So how will I live?

While there are a lot of potentials, its not guarantees. For the last 40 years I have no bills to pay. No social obligations or responsibilities. I have made no social contributions and that saddens me greatly. Add to that I am African American and an ex-con! In a nutshell, justice for me means more questions than answers. (I am up to the challenge!)

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

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