Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Albert Woodfox and the Case Against Solitary Confinement
The New Yorker Magazine

On Friday, February 19th, Albert Woodfox turned sixty-nine and walked out of a Louisiana prison, celebrating his first birthday as a free man in more than forty-five years. He had spent nearly all of the previous four and a half decades in solitary confinement. As far as we know, no one in the United States has been held in isolation for so long.

Absent the herculean efforts over the past decade by his pro-bono lawyers, led by George Kendall, of Squire Patton Boggs, Woodfox would still be in an isolation cell today. The fact that Louisiana officials agreed to his release is testament to his lawyers’ persistence, the weakness of the case against him, and the rapidly changing legal landscape regarding solitary confinement. Louisiana first placed Woodfox in solitary confinement in 1972, after a prison guard was killed at the Louisiana State Prison, better known as Angola, the name of the former slave plantation on whose grounds the prison stands. Prison officials accused Woodfox, who was serving a sentence for armed robbery, and another prisoner, Herman Wallace. No forensic evidence tied them to the crime, but they were both Black Panthers and were viewed as troublemakers for protesting prison conditions. After trial, it came out that the state’s principal witness, another inmate, had changed his story and implicated Woodfox and Wallace only after being threatened with solitary confinement. Wallace died of liver cancer in 2013, just days after being released from prison on humanitarian grounds. Both Woodfox and Wallace always maintained their innocence.

The road to Woodfox’s freedom has been long. His first conviction in the guard killing, from the seventies, was tossed out because of racial discrimination in grand-jury selection. On retrial in the nineties, he was convicted again, but that conviction was overturned on the same grounds. In 2014, a federal judge barred the state from trying him a third time, finding that, because virtually all the witnesses were dead, Woodfox could no longer receive a fair trial. An appeals court overturned that decision, allowing the trial to proceed. But on Friday the prosecutor agreed, for all practical purposes, to drop the case. Woodfox was allowed to plead “no contest” to lesser charges, which resulted in his immediate release. Importantly for Woodfox, a no-contest plea does not require an admission of guilt.

Why were state officials, who had spent decades fighting Woodfox’s case, willing to free a man accused of killing a prison guard? They may have worried that a third conviction was by no means certain. Budgetary concerns may also have played a part; the case has cost millions of dollars. But one hopes that they also came to realize that Woodfox had suffered enough. With only a few brief exceptions, Woodfox had been held in his prison cell, alone, for twenty-three hours every day. For one hour each day he was allowed out of his cell to take a shower or exercise—still in total isolation. In short, for more than four decades, he was denied human contact.

Throughout Woodfox’s detention, prison officials duly filled out hundreds of ninety-day status reviews, required for inmates in solitary confinement, but the only justification they ever cited for continuing his segregation was the “nature of original reason for lockdown.” As a federal magistrate found, Woodfox had not had “any serious disciplinary infractions for decades.” In 2006, the warden at Angola admitted that “in the last five years, [Woodfox] could almost be described as a model prisoner.” As Steve Martin, a former Texas prison guard and administrator who reviewed Woodfox’s records for his legal team, told me, Woodfox was held in isolation “not for any legitimate penological reason, but solely to punish him for his asserted involvement in the 1972 crime.”

Woodfox’s release is part of a larger trend, in which extended solitary confinement is increasingly being called into question. Last June, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion, in a case not even addressing solitary confinement, that invited a constitutional challenge to the practice. In September, California settled a class-action lawsuit brought by nine prisoners held in solitary confinement, and agreed to a reformed process expected to transfer the majority of its prisoners now in isolation into the general prison population. The same week, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, which includes the directors of all state prison systems and many jails in large cities, called for radically limiting the use of extended solitary confinement.

In January, President Barack Obama directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt multiple reforms to the use of solitary confinement, including a ban on the practice for juveniles, development of alternative housing for the mentally ill and those who need to be isolated for their own protection, and across-the-board reductions in the maximum time imposed in segregation for disciplinary reasons.

James Aiken, another of the experts who reviewed Woodfox’s case for his lawyers, has worked in corrections for forty-four years—as long as Woodfox has been in solitary confinement. He’s been the warden of the largest state penitentiary in South Carolina, the commissioner of corrections in Indiana, and head of prisons in the U.S. Virgin Islands. As a warden, he oversaw the placement of many inmates into solitary. As he puts it, “I’ve been called a lot of things in my time as a warden, but liberal is not one of them.” Yet he has come to the view, shared by an increasing number of corrections officials, that segregation should be used only as a last resort, to address violent prison behavior that cannot otherwise be controlled. Even for the incorrigibly disruptive, he told me, isolation is often a belated and ineffectual response to problems that would be better addressed through alternative means long before the individual entered prison—including education, drug treatment, mental-health services, and the like.

Louisiana, and the nation, still has a long way to go. An October 2015 Justice Department study found that, on an average day in 2011-12, approximately 660,000 state and federal prisoners and 201,000 jail inmates were held in administrative segregation or solitary confinement. Angola prison still has more than a hundred and twenty inmates in the long-term segregation unit that held Albert Woodfox. Some have been there for more than twenty years. One, George Gibson, has been held in isolation since 1982, after he participated, at age seventeen, in a failed escape and abduction with an older prisoner. Gibson, who lost one arm as a result of being shot during the escape attempt, has only a handful of prison infractions. But he remains in solitary, with no prospect of release.

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