(Mint Press) – James “Buddy” Caldwell, the attorney general for Louisiana, is on the defensive. Forced to defend the nearly 41 years that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have spent in solitary confinement — likely the longest such confinement in the nation’s history and one of the longest in the history of penal punishment — the attorney general stated that the two men “have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system.”
This statement follows a federal court ruling which overturned the conviction of Woodfox, now 66, for the third time. This overturning comes on the grounds that the grand jury’s foremen were selected on a racial bias for Woodfox’s indictment.
In the United States, a criminal indictment may be determined by a panel of citizens known as a grand jury. While this is a constitutional mandate, the grand jury is one of only a few Bill of Rights provisions that a state can opt out of. Currently, 23 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government use grand juries. Some communities, such as Hennepin County in Minnesota (in which Minneapolis is the county seat), keep a grand jury impaneled at all times.
This is different from a petit or petty jury, which settles and determines a criminal or civil case.
Wallace, Woodfox and Robert Hillary King form the “Angola Three,” who were placed into solitary confinement in 1971 after the death of a prison guard, 23-year-old Brent Miller. The men helped to form a chapter of the Black Panther Party in the prison, where they led strikes and sit-ins in opposition to the prison’s segregation and systematic rapes and violence, and to improve living conditions. The men worked as jailhouse lawyers to help other prisoners file legal papers and motions. Woodfox and Wallace (now 71) were convicted of the stabbing, but the prison held King responsible as well.
All three were placed in solitary confinement in 1972, where they remained until former Black Panther and Common Ground Collective member Malik Rahim discovered the men’s continuing segregation. In 2001, King’s conviction was overturned and — upon pleading guilty to a lesser charge of “conspiracy to commit murder” was released on time served. Woodfox and Wallace remained in solitary confinement until they were moved to maximum security in two separate prisons in 2008.
A commitment to keep the Angola Three locked up
Attorney General Caldwell sent the statement unsolicited and mysteriously to an email list that included prisoners’ right advocates who have supported the Angola Three. It began: “Thank you for your interest in the ambush, savage attack and brutal murder of Officer Brent Miller at Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) on April 17, 1972. Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace committed this murder, stabbing and slicing Miller over 35 times.”
Caldwell stated that he intends to appeal the ruling to overturn to the Fifth Circuit, a notoriously conservative court. “We feel confident that we will again prevail at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Caldwell said. “However, if we do not, we are fully prepared and willing to retry this murderer again. There are no flaws in our evidence and this case is very strong.” This is despite the fact that evidence have been uncovered to show that prison officials bribed eyewitnesses.
As reported by NPR, Hezekiah Brown, a witness for the state that testified against the Angola Three, were allowed to move to “the dog pen,” an unguarded house on a hill on the Angola campus where the prison’s guard dogs are tended. The warden of the prison at the time, Murray Henderson, admitted after the fact that Brown was promised a pardon for his testimony. Brown was also paid a carton of cigarettes a week by the prison staff.
Caldwell has stated that he believes Brown. “Two grand juries, two Louisiana juries, the Louisiana Supreme Court, the Louisiana appellate court system apparently believed Hezekiah Brown,” Caldwell says. “That’s what the system is about.”
Fear of the Black Panthers
In a 2008 disposition, Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Warden Burl Cain stated, “Let’s just for the sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of Brent Miller.” Cain responded, “OK, I would still keep him in CCR [solitary] … I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind 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.”
Cain, the following year, argued that he was doing the prisoners a favor by keeping them in isolation. “It turned out they were comfortable where they were and they liked their little privacy, they liked their little room, they liked their little box, they liked that nobody had to deal with them,” Cain said. “And then I got the complaint over in the dormitory that they didn’t like being with those other people because they just felt like they wanted their privacy. So it taught me a lot about humans, just that little dormitory.”
Cain sees the Black Panthers as a “militant organization.” The Black Panther Party, an African-American revolutionary socialist organization that pushed for the improving of the social status of African-Americans and protection of the Black community from systematic and authoritative abuses, was seen as a threat by the general power structure of the United States. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) instituted COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) — which used covert and illegal methods to infiltrate, disrupt and discredit domestic political organizations and individuals, including the Black Panthers, the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Indian Movement and the Church of Scientology.
Hoover called the Black Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Specifically troubling to the FBI was the group’s Free Breakfast for Children Program, which fed thousands of children every day and forced the federal government’s hand into creating a free breakfast/free lunch program of its own. “The FBI assailed the free breakfast program as nothing more than a propaganda tool used by the Party to carry out its ‘communist’ agenda.”
The Black Panthers dissolved in 1982, shaken apart by the FBI’s ceaseless harassment. Despite other organizations using the Panthers’ name and the Republicans’ innuendoes, the Black Panther Party has yet to re-emerge.
After Woodfox’s first conviction overturning, records were discovered that showed that Caldwell emailed the neighborhood association for Woodfox’s niece — where he was slated to stay — “that a murderer would be moving in next door.” Like Cain, Woodfox sees the Angola Three as political radicals and has called Woodfox “the most dangerous person on the planet.”
Caldwell, in his emailed comments, argued that the Woodfox and Wallace were not in solitary confinement, “Contrary to popular lore, Woodfox and Wallace have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system. They have been held in protective cell units known as CCR. These units were designed to protect inmates as well as correctional officers. They have always been able to communicate freely with other inmates and prison staff as frequently as they want. They have televisions on the tiers which they watch through their cell doors. In their cells they can have radios and headsets, reading and writing materials, stamps, newspapers, magazines and books. These convicted murderers have an hour outside of their cells each day where they can exercise in the hall, talk on the phone, shower, and visit with the other 10 to 14 inmates on the tier.”
“At least three times per week they can go outside on the yard and exercise and enjoy the sun if they want,” Caldwell continued. “This is all in addition to the couple of days set aside for visitations each week. These inmates are frequently visited by spiritual advisors, medical personnel and social workers. They have had frequent and extensive contact with numerous individuals from all over the world, by telephone, mail, and face-to-face personal visits. They even now have email capability. Contrary to numerous reports, this is not solitary confinement.”
The cost of solitary confinement
Currently, an estimated 80,000 prisoners in the United States spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units. Many will stay there for 10, 20 or even 30 years. “The use of any form of restricted housing, however limited, remains a critical management tool that helps us maintain safety, security and effective reentry programming for all federal inmates,” said Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Solitary confinement costs twice or three times the cost to imprison a prisoner in the general population, up to $60,000 per prisoner per year. Solitary confinement, according to the American Psychological Association, can leave a prisoner mentally or emotionally broken down and endangered of panic attacks, depression, paranoia and severe hallucinations, due to the lack of human contact and being in a small, panic-inducing space for long periods of time. Many cannot reintegrate after solitary confinement into society or the general population.
“I really believed when I got close to the situation at the supermax [high-capacity maximum security prison] in Wisconsin that one of the things that I was seeing was mentally ill people who didn’t come in mentally ill,” said Walter Dickey, formerly the secretary of corrections for Wisconsin.
Angola Three member King commented on the changes he saw in prisoners that underwent solitary confinement. “I kind of insulated myself when I saw what happened to them; I think it created a steel resolve in myself to not succumb to that,” he said.