Solitary review: Albert’s treatment should be confined to history
‘I am allowed a brief moment out of my 6x9 feet world for one hour of exercise. This has been my routine for years. The pain and suffering goes beyond description.’
‘Do we really think it makes sense to lock people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometimes for years at a time? That's not going to make us safer. That's not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt?'
President Obama, 14 July 2015
Yesterday President Obama proposed a ‘meaningful reform’ of America’s creaking justice system by the end of the year. Plans to tackle the ‘huge explosion in incarceration rates’ (the US is home to 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners) will unfold alongside a good hard look at prison conditions, with ‘a review of the over-use of solitary confinement across American prisons’. It’s long overdue. And it couldn’t come soon enough.
The US is one of the only countries in the world to systemically confine people to isolation for long periods of time, with ‘super max’ prisons built specifically for isolating people at length.
Over 40 US states keep prisoners in solitary confinement (in isolation for 22-24 hours a day). 2-3% of the US prison population is being kept in solitary. That’s 25,000 people in long-term isolation, amounting to an estimated 80,000 people on any given day, if you include prisoners in short-term isolation.
30-50% of prisoners in solitary experience mental health problems; 20% of that group have severe mental health needs. Almost half of all prison suicides in the States occur in solitary confinement, where prisoners have little access to rehabilitation schemes or work programmes. How, indeed, will those people ever adapt?
Albert Woodfox: 43 years in solitary, and counting
For Albert Woodfox in Louisiana, those 23 hours in an isolated cell have lasted more than days or months. He, like thousands of other American prisoners, has been left to languish in solitary confinement for years. What makes Albert’s case remarkable is that the 68-year-old has been there longer than any other current US prisoner – perhaps any other prisoner in the country’s history.
Albert was placed in solitary 43 years ago. That routine – 23 hours a day in a 6x9 feet ‘world’, now with just three hours of exercise time a week – is ongoing, and how Albert will spend today. And tomorrow. And the day after that.
Despite a court ruling last month that Albert would not only be released from solitary but freed completely, unable to be retried, the move was halted and appealed by the state, and Albert remains in solitary.
A cat-and-mouse game of injustice
The physical endurance of solitary confinement is only compounded by the mental rollercoaster Albert has been subjected to over the years. For decades his lawyers have tirelessly pursued avenues of justice. Time and time again, the possibility of release from solitary appeared, only for access to justice to be thwarted by Louisiana authorities.
The state authorities, headed up by Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, have led a long-running campaign of vengeance against Albert. The Attorney General continues to call this physically and mentally frail prisoner ‘the most dangerous person on the planet’, despite Albert’s exemplary prison records. He has said that he opposes the idea of Albert’s release ‘with every fibre of his being’.
Albert’s conviction has been overturned twice before only for state authorities to appeal, re-indict him and keep him in solitary. They appealed every move in Albert’s favour. His conviction was overturned for a third time last year, and the state authorities appealed the ruling at every possible opportunity.
This cruel cat-and-mouse game between the state and Albert was encapsulated in a single week last month. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal issued a ruling I imagine Albert couldn’t quite believe he would ever hear: he was to be released immediately and unconditionally, and state authorities barred from subjecting him to a retrial again for the same crime (the murder of a prison guard in 1972: charges that Albert vehemently denies, that the state has no physical evidence to support and bribed witnesses to testify against, and that even the victim’s wife strongly believes he didn’t commit).
This was an incredible moment for Albert, and for those who have tirelessly campaigned for his release. His impending freedom was widely reported. Albert saw the press vans outside the prison, awaiting his release. Later, he saw them drive away.
Once again Louisiana’s state authorities resorted to their knee-jerk reaction and blocked a way out of prison for Albert. They appealed the release and the decision that they were not to retry Albert again. And they were successful.
Albert, who just four days previously had been granted unconditional and immediate release barring a retrial, was to be kept in solitary. The court appeared to accept the state’s argument that this man with an exemplary prison record, who now suffers from physical and mental complaints owing to his 43 years in that tiny cell, is a ‘danger to society’.
And so the game continues. Albert will face another hearing in August. Until then, that tiny cell is his ‘world’.
‘Spreading black pantherism’
Why are Louisiana state authorities working so hard to incarcerate one man in isolation? Truthfully, it seems that Albert and two other former inmates (one deceased, one freed), together known as the Angola 3, have been punished over the odds for bringing the politics of the black panther party to Angola penitentiary in the 1970s, when the prison – built on the grounds of a former slave plantation – was rife with sexual slavery and racism.
Albert’s former prison warden explicitly cited his fear of Albert ‘spreading black pantherism’ as a reason to keep him in solitary.
'I know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organise the young new inmates. I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them. He has to stay in a cell while he's at Angola.'
Burl Cain, Angola prison Warden 2008
While confederate flags are lowered across the United States, while the black president of the United States affirms that 'the cause for which [the confederates] fought, the cause of slavery was wrong... The resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong', the reasons for Albert’s solitary incarceration seem not simply unjust, but grossly prejudiced and outdated.
In his eulogy for one of the victims of the racist shooting in Charleston last month, President Obama referenced the racism embedded in a criminal justice system that is ‘infected with bias’, saying that ‘for too long we’ve been blind to the way that past injustices continue to shape the present’.
Albert’s injustice ought to be in the past, but it is ongoing, still. With a review of solitary confinement, we can only hope that Albert’s hell will end and no one in future will have to endure 43 years incarcerated in isolation.
Yesterday, Obama said that according to his faith, ‘justice and redemption go hand in hand’. I hope Albert’s redemption is soon; it’s been a long, long time coming.
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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.