shawshank without the redemption

bergens tidende, 11 april 2012

Imagine being held in solitary confinement, not for a day, not for a year, but for forty years. Imagine entering a cell, four paces long, three paces wide, when Richard Nixon was in the White House and still being confined to that cell, as Barack Obama gears up for re-election. Imagine being confined to that cell for every minute of those forty years apart from time out to shower and a walk around an outdoor cage three times a week. That has been the fate of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, two black prisoners whose story tells not simply of personal injustice, but of the inhumanity that lies at the heart of America’s prison system.

Woodfox and Wallace were convicted in 1969 of armed robbery and sentenced to 55 and 50 years of hard labour respectively. They were incarcerated in the notorious Louisiana State Pen, the largest and bloodiest prison in America, for years infamous for its brutal forced labour and the depth of the sexual violence inmates had to endure. It is nicknamed ‘Angola’ because was built on the site of a plantation that had been worked mainly by Angolan slaves. It is still, many say, run like a plantation. Inside prison, the men became politicized and joined the Black Panthers. They set up political classes, organized the other inmates, and staged protests to improve the brutal conditions.

In 1972, at a time that their political activities were causing particular concern to the prison authorities, Woodfox and Wallace were charged and convicted of the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. The conviction was based entirely on the contradictory, hearsay evidence of other prisoners, some of whom were jailhouse informants. Evidence that might have proved their innocence, including a bloody fingerprint left at the scene that came from neither Woodfox nor Wallace was first suppressed, then ‘lost’. The jury that convicted them was all-white and comprised largely people who worked at Angola. Even Miller’s widow now acknowledges the men’s innocence. ‘If they did not do this’, she told a court hearing in 2008, ‘and I believe that they didn’t, they have been living a nightmare for 36 years!’

Two weeks after Miller’s killing, another prisoner, Robert King, was transferred to Angola. He had been convicted of murder, a charge of which he has always protested his innocence. He, too, had joined the joined the Black Panthers inside and had started organizing inmates. Despite having been in a prison 150 miles away when Miller was killed, he was investigated for the murder, identified as a ‘conspirator’ and placed in solitary with Wallace and Woodcock. The following year he was charged and convicted of the murder of another prisoner, a crime of which again he has always maintained his innocence. The evidence on which the so-called ‘Angola 3’ were convicted is barely credible. The evidence that they were as they claim framed for their political activities inside seems incontestable.

King was released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. He had spent 29 years in solitary confinement. Wallace and Woodfox have both had their convictions overturned in federal court. But Louisiana attorney general Buddy Caldwell has contested those decisions. Both men remain in jail, both in solitary confinement. One is 70 years old, the other 65. Caldwell has called Woodfox ‘the most dangerous man on the planet”, while Angola prison governor Burl Cain has insisted that he will never release either from solitary because ‘he’d be organising young new inmates’. Woodfox and Wallace, he insists, will remain in solitary for the rest of their days. It’s Shawshank but without the redemption.

And yet, however extraordinary the story of the Angola 3 seems, it is not that extraordinary. There are more than 80,000 prisoners in solitary in America, many of whom have been confined for years. Far from being a punishment of last-resort, solitary confinement has become an everyday strategy of control. Prisoners are placed in complete isolation for years not simply for violent acts but for possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, ignoring orders, or using profanity. In California, for instance, offences for which prisoners can be placed in solitary include ‘Possession of five dollars or more without authorization’ and ‘Tattooing or possession of tattoo paraphernalia’. In Virginia, a group of Rastafarian men were placed in solitary – some for more than a decade – because they refused to cut their hair on religious grounds.

Not only has solitary confinement become a routine measure, it has also become a never-ending punishment. In California the average term in solitary confinement in California is 6.8 years. More than 500 prisoners have currently served 10 years or more in solitary, 78 for at least 20 years. In Arizona, the average time spent in solitary is 5 year; the figure is almost the same in Texas. One Texan prisoner has been isolated for 24 years. Thomas Silverstein, who has been described as America’s 'most isolated man', has been held in an extreme form of solitary confinement under a 'no human contact' order for 28 years.

These are shocking figures, nothing less than state brutality on an industrial scale. Were this happening in Iran or China, it would be rightly condemned, not least by the US State Department. America prides itself on a justice system more open and transparent than in most nations. As Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace begin their forty-first year in solitary for a crime that virtually everyone accept they did not commit, it is time to acknowledge that it is also a system closed to the most basic needs of justice.