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Amnesty International: Decades of Solitary Confinement at Louisiana’s Angola Prison Amounts to Torture

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Posted April 18, 2012

Interviews with Everette Thompson, southeast regional director of Amnesty USA, and Robert King, one of the Angola 3, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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April 17 marks exactly 40 years that two inmates in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola prison, have been held in solitary confinement for the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were serving sentences for separate armed robbery convictions when they formed a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party to fight for better prison conditions, including ending segregation and systematic rape. They organized strikes and sit-ins to press their cause. When Robert Hillary King, formerly Robert King Wilkerson, entered the prison shortly after the murder of the guard, he was linked to the crime through his association with the Black Panthers and investigated but never charged. Supporters refer to the men as the "Angola 3." King spent 29 years of his 31 years in prison in solitary confinement, before a 1973 conviction was overturned and he plead guilty to a lesser charge. He was released in 2001.

Solitary confinement means spending 23 hours a day in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, with outside exercise only three times a week in a concrete yard, weather permitting. There have been short periods in the past four decades when Woodfox, now 65, and Wallace, 70, were removed from solitary, but they are currently back in isolation. Both men have serious health issues. On April 17, Amnesty International USA presented 65,000 petition signatures to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal seeking an end to their solitary confinement, claiming such treatment amounted to torture.

The day before petitions were to be delivered to Gov. Jindal, Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Everette Thompson, the southeast regional director of Amnesty USA and to former inmate Robert King. Everette explains how prison officials justify continuing to hold Woodfox and Wallace in such conditions.

EVERETTE THOMPSON: So they continue to say that they're in solitary confinement due to the original reason for lockdown, and the original reason for lockdown was the murder of Brent Miller, even though in 1996, Louisiana prison policy was changed to remove "original reason for lockdown" to account for someone to still be in solitary confinement. In their case, it continues to be the reason why they're on lockdown. So each time their case is reviewed by the Prison Review Board, it comes back that the reason why they cannot leave solitary confinement is due to the nature of their original reason for lockdown. Clearly there has to be some other political reason that's not coming to the forefront and the only thing they have to say is original reason for lockdown, which goes against their own prison reform policy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The men have proclaimed their innocence in the murder of the prison guard. What are they hoping for? Just to get them out of solitary? I know Amnesty and other human rights organizations define prolonged solitary confinement as torture. Or do they want a new trial or for the governor to commute their sentences, or what?

EVERETTE THOMPSON: Amnesty International, our stance is looking at solitary confinement, and saying that we want to make sure that Albert and Herman and are released from solitary confinement. We've publicly stated that we have concerns about the legal process around the Angola 3 in the sense there's no physical evidence, the DNA evidence – the potential DNA evidence – has been lost. The convictions were based on questionable inmate testimony. We will continue to monitor the case and Albert and Herman's condition, but our goal for tomorrow is to shine a light on solitary confinement and to say these men should be treated with dignity and removed from solitary confinement.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Everette Thompson, do you have any clue as to what Gov. Bobby Jindal will do in this case? I know at least a few Louisiana politicians have called their conditions of confinement cruel and unusual punishment.

EVERETTE THOMPSON: No indication at all. We've contacted Gov. Jindal's office many times over the past couple of weeks, requesting a meeting to discuss the case of the Angola 3, to inquire about the use of solitary confinement in this case, and there's been no response. Gov. Jindal has the opportunity to stand on the right side of justice and order removal of Albert and Herman from isolation. We really hope he will take heed and make some moves.

BETWEEN THE LINES: That was Everette Thompson of Amnesty International USA. Robert King, the third of the Angola 3, after describing the abysmal prison conditions he endured for three decades, explains what kept him going while in solitary confinement.

ROBERT KING: I had become politicized by this time, and I had changed my whole concept. I just saw myself as a target, that I was a political prisoner and I was targeted for who I was, and I had begun to see some things that other people were saying to be correct. For instance, like this was during the period when the protests against the war in Vietnam and they were shooting kids down at Kent State and Jackson State. I'm talking about the U.S. National Guard was doing this, you know, for kids protesting war. Then the Black Panther Party was on the set. Martin Luther King had just been killed. Malcolm X was killed five years earlier, so things were happening, and even though at the time I could not explain and articulate some of the stuff that was going on, I felt it. And when the Black Panther Party came on the set I embraced the ideology because I think it was one that was really strong. And I think it was part of the thing that helped me survive. Having this new ideology gave me the flotation I needed to survive.

But I must say this: when people ask me how I survived 29 years in solitary confinement, I don't know if that's really possible. It's kind of hard to be dipped in waste and not come up stinking. You may not be smelly; it may not be apparent, but the effects are there. I don't want to minimize the impact of solitary confinement. It's cruel; it's inhuman; the soul cries. How can you define when the soul cries (unclear). So it was pretty rough, pretty hard.

Read more about the Angola 3 case and extended solitary confinement at AmnestyUSA.org.

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