Albert Woodfox, an American prisoner who was held in solitary confinement for 43 years was finally released on February 19th, 2016. Albert Woodfox, was part of the ‘Angola Three’, a group of three prisoners who were placed in solitary confinement in the State Penitentiary of Louisiana, also known as the Angola Prison. The case of Albert Woodfox is unique because no other prisoner in US history has been held in solitary confinement for this length of time .
Although the use of solitary confinement is a common practice around the world, it is overall considered to be a controversial prison management tool due to severe psychological damage and is only to be used as a last resort in exceptional circumstances . In many instances, US Courts have ruled that the solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution in certain situations, yet the practice persists. In recent years, the global movement against solitary confinement grew larger; the UN and international human rights bodies have spoken out against the practice.
This blog will briefly discuss the circumstances of the case of Albert Woodfox and the use of solitary confinement in light of international standards.
In 1971, Albert Woodfox and two other men were sentenced to prison for committing an armed robbery. During his sentencing, Albert Woodfox escaped from a Louisiana Courthouse and joined the Black Panther Party. Once the’ Angola Three’ were imprisoned, the three men decided to become activists by setting up a Black Panther Party chapter to seek improvement of prison conditions such as ending segregation, violence and rape. In 1972, Albert Woodfox and another member of the Angola Three were charged and convicted of murdering a prison guard. The third member of the Angola Three was linked to the crime but charged with another separate crime in prison.
Legal aspects of the case were deeply disturbing; no physical evidence linking the men to the crime was ever found. A bloody fingerprint at the murder scene matched neither men which was ignored by the authorities. In addition, the conviction was based on questionable inmate testimony. The three men were sent to solitary confinement and they were held for decades in isolation. Throughout the years, they have been denied any meaningful review for the reasons of their isolation. For over a decade, prison officials have breached their own policies in order to keep the men in isolation. During the duration of their stay in prison, the Angola Three consistently maintained their innocence and believed they were falsely implicated in the murder for their political activism.
The conviction of Albert Woodfox was overturned three times before he was released on February 19th, after he no contest plea to lesser charges. The other men were released in 2001, after serving 29 years in solitary confinement and in 2013, after 41 years, due to ill health and subsequently died two days after his release.
The case garnered worldwide attention from the media as well as from institutions such as Amnesty International USA and the UN.
Amnesty International believed that the conditions in which the prisoners were held, including the length of time spend in isolation, violates international human rights treaties to which the US in party. The US has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading treatment or Punishment, both of which prohibit torture and other ill –treatment. The Human Rights Committee and the Committee against Torture have found that prolonged solitary confinement van amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Mr. Juan E. Méndez, repeatedly urged the US Government to abolish the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.
In 2013, he stated on the ‘Angola Three’ Case : Keeping Albert Woodfox in solitary confinement for more than four decades clearly amounts to torture and it should be lifted immediately. He […] has been kept in isolation in a 8 –foot-by-12 cell for up to 23 hours a day with only one hour of exercise a day or solitary recreation.
He continued: ‘The circumstances of the incarceration of the so-called Angola Three clearly show the use of solitary confinement in the US goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law’. ‘Persons held in solitary confinement should always be allowed to challenge the reasons and length of the regime and should always have access to legal counsel and medical assistance.
He also noted that the use of solitary confinement and its negative effects on inmates is widespread throughout the US penitentiary system.
Three years later, on his 69th birthday, Albert Woodfox was released from prison.
Amnesty International made the following statement: […] ‘This belated measure of justice, on Woodfox’s 69th birthday, is something he has been seeking for more than half his life’. […] ‘Today must also mark a pivotal new chapterin reforming the use of prolonged solitary confinement in US Prisons and Jails’. ‘Moving forward, Woodfox’s case must serve as a tragic reminder of the cruelty inflicted by the prison system at its most extreme’. Louisiana must commit to making urgent reforms to solitary confinement and chart a course toward doing its part in ending the overall crisis of mass incarceration’.
Upon his release, Albert Woodfox was interviewed by reporters about his plans for the future. He stated: ‘I’ve been locked up for so long in a prison inside a prison. So, for me, it is just about learning how to live as a free person”, he said. I’m just trying to learn to be free’.