Albert's tomorrow - seeking justice after 41 years
Today will be much the same as yesterday for Albert Woodfox. And yesterday will have been much the same as thousands of days before that.
At least 23 hours of Albert’s day will be spent alone, in a cell measuring 2 x 3 metres. For the most part of 41 years, since he was convicted of murdering a Louisiana prison guard, Albert has been kept in isolation. State prison authorities have continuously broken their own rules to keep Albert alone, in his cramped cell – seemingly indefinitely.
Albert’s conditions: solitary – what’s in a name?
‘Contrary to numerous reports, this is not solitary confinement’ claims Buddy Caldwell, Attorney General for Louisiana, in an email I received from him the other day. If you’ve taken action for Albert, the Attorney General may have emailed you too. More on that later.
‘There is no universally agreed upon definition of solitary confinement’ acknowledges the UN Special Rapporteur on torture. But in his last report on the condition, he described it as ‘the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.’ Albert’s locked in for at least 23 hours every day.
‘Meaningful contact with other people is typically reduced to a minimum. The reduction in stimuli is not only quantitative but also qualitative. The available stimuli and the occasional social contacts are seldom freely chosen, generally monotonous, and often not empathetic.’ - Interim report of the Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on torture 2011
‘Prolonged solitary confinement’ he describes as a period of solitary lasting more than fifteen days; 'at that point… some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible’. Such conditions amount to torture, according to the UN. Four decades of solitary is hard to imagine, but that’s Albert’s experience (and counting, day by day).
Solitary is a contentious term – and a damning one (the Special Rapporteur on torture just last week called for an investigation into its use across the Americas). In his email to me, Buddy Caldwell insists that Albert is being held in ‘protected cell units known as CCR [Closed Cell Restriction]. These units were designed to protect inmates as well as correctional officers’. CCR is 23 hours of isolation in a 2 x 3 metre cell. Despite over 150 reviews of Albert’s prison conditions, Louisiana has continuously opted to keep him in CCR, for reasons that violate their own policies.
Whatever you call the conditions that Albert has spent the last four decades in, there is no disputing that they are cruel, inhuman and degrading. Albert is 66. Louisiana cannot undo 41 years of mental and physical pain. But the state can do what is right, and allow him to access the justice that he’s owed.
41 years on, Albert’s conviction overturned
Albert was convicted in 1973 of the murder of prison officer Brent Miller in Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as ‘Angola’ Prison), in a case which raises serious legal and human rights concerns. Albert's case has been contested and overruled in the past, and this year it was once again overturned, this time on the grounds of racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson at his trial.
Four decades after he was first incarcerated, Albert could be retried.
There are many troubling aspects to the 1973 trial that convicted him, not least
- A lack of physical evidence to incriminate Albert
- The fact that he did not have access to adequate legal counsel
- Misconduct by the prosecution
- The state lost potentially exculpatory evidence.
In fact, Albert was mainly convicted on one man’s testimony – that of Hezekiah Brown, the only witness to testify that he saw Albert commit the murder. Hezekiah died in 1996. After his death, evidence emerged showing that he had received benefits from the state in return for the testimony that condemned Albert: Hezekiah was immediately transferred from his cell to a cottage on the prison grounds; he received a weekly carton of cigarettes and the support of a prison official for a pardon (which he got in ’86).
Four inmates also declared that Albert had committed the murder (although none claimed to be an eyewitness); two of these men later retracted their statements. One of them said that officials told him that testifying would help him get out of Angola. Of the two men who stick by their statements, one was heavily medicated at the time of the murder, the other is legally blind.
Albert has always maintained his innocence, as have other inmates who say they were with him at the time.
Additionally, years after her husband was murdered, Brent Miller’s widow came forward to ask that the case was investigated, saying ‘If they did not do this – and I believe they didn’t – they have been living a nightmare’.
Messages from the Attorney General's office
This month, we’ve asked you to email Louisiana’s Attorney General, calling on him to let justice prevail and not to appeal the overturning of Albert’s conviction. Attorney General James ‘Buddy’ Caldwell has emailed many of you in response, restating his reasons for incarcerating Albert in CCR indefinitely, and linking him with unsolved crimes including rape during the late 1960s. Albert has never been tried or convicted of rape.
Caldwell's message is a strong one – he intends to appeal the ruling overturning Albert’s conviction.
Political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry has debunked the Attorney General's message in this short video, which is well worth a watch:
Keep the pressure up
We refuse to stop calling for justice for Albert. And we need your support to get the message across.
Ask the Attorney General to let Albert finally access justice. After four decades, it's long overdue. For Albert’s yesterday, his today and his tomorrow.
'I do not have the words to convey the years of mental, emotional and physical torture I have endured. I ask that for a moment you imagine yourself standing at the edge of nothingness, looking at emptiness - that is insanity!
'To be honest I am not sure what damage has been done to me, but I do know that the feeling of pain allows me to know that I am alive. If I dwelled on the pain I have endured and stopped to think about how 40 years locked in a cage 23 hours a day has affected me, it would give insanity the victory it has sought for 40 years.'
- Albert Woodfox, 2012
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.