The more than 40 year solitary confinement of "Angola Three" inmate Albert Woodfox "amounts to torture and it should be lifted immediately," declared UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez in a sweeping indictment Monday of inhumanity and abuse in U.S. prisons.
The injustices Woodfox faces have been highlighted by the recent passing of fellow 'Angola Three' inmate Herman Wallace and underline systemic abuse throughout U.S. detention facilities, declared Méndez.
“The circumstances of the incarceration of the so-called 'Angola Three' clearly show that the use of solitary confinement in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law,” Méndez stated.
Woodfox and Wallace were placed in solitary confinement in 1972 at Louisiana's maximum-security Angola prison, which sits on a former slave plantation, on unverified charges of killing a prison guard. Both men maintained their innocence and charged that they were targeted and framed for their political activities, which included founding a Black Panthers chapter and organizing against abusive conditions in the prison. Robert King soon joined them in solitary, accused of killing another prisoner.
The three were labeled the 'Angola Three' when a law student and black freedom organizer discovered in 1997 that they were still being held in solitary confinement in six-by-nine foot cells after 20 years. This prompted public outrage and support campaigns from the outside, with the three inmates staying in touch with these movements and each other throughout their confinement.
Despite the organized efforts to free them, King spent 29 years in solitary confinement before his conviction was overturned. Wallace, who spent 41 of his 71 years in severe isolation, was released last week while in the advanced stages of liver cancer, when a judge found that he had been convicted by an unconstitutionally-assembled jury that excluded women. Wallace was re-indicted on his death bed by a Louisiana grand jury following his release. When he died just a day later, among his last words were, "I am free, I am free."
Yet, despite Wallace's release, Woodfox remains in severe isolation at David Wade Correctional Center.
“This is a sad case and it is not over,” declared Méndez. “The co-accused, Mr. Woodfox, remains in solitary confinement pending an appeal to the federal court and has been kept in isolation in a 8-foot-by-12 foot (2.5 x 3.5 m. Approx.) cell for up to 23 hours per day, with just one hour of exercise or solitary recreation.”
Méndez insisted that the continued detention of Woodfox highlights the inhumanity of the U.S. prison system. “It is about time to provide the opportunity for an in situ assessment of the conditions in US prisons and detention facilities," he said.
In September, California prisoners suspended a two-month hunger strike against solitary confinement and other forms of torture in U.S. prisons, with up to 30,000 people participating in the third major hunger strike in the state's prisons since 2011. They are continuing their fight through upcoming Legislative Hearings on solitary confinement, which they won through organizing on the inside and support on the outside.
"The treatment of the 'Angola Three' shows us what the state is afraid of, why it uses solitary," said Isaac Ontiveros, of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition and prison abolition organization Critical Resistance, in an interview with Common Dreams. "They are afraid that people will empower themselves and one another to change the conditions in prisons that black and poor and oppressed people face. We see the lengths the state will go to crush these movements."
"We see that, but we also see something that the forces of oppression can't ever stop. The love of life and freedom that endures," he declared. "When we remember Herman Wallace, when we continue to fight for the freedom for Albert Woodfox and all political prisoners, we draw on that spirit. It's that spirit we see among the California hunger strikers. It's those things that are inspiring and bringing people together. These are the seeds from which change will grow."