A federal appeals court ruled last Thursday on the side of a lower court that ordered the State of Louisiana to free Albert Woodfox, who has been in solitary confinement for almost 43 years, the longest period of any American prisoner.
Woodfox, Robert King and the late Herman Wallace, known as the "Angola 3," were convicted in 1972 of murdering a guard at Angola Prison (Louisiana State Penitentiary).
A federal judge overturned that conviction in 2008, but Louisiana appealed the ruling. A second federal judge ruled in 2013 that Woodfox should be released because of racial discrimination in his 1998 retrial, but Louisiana prosecutors appealed that ruling as well.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the 2013 court order for Woodfox’s release on Nov. 20.
However, Woodfox was still shackled on Nov. 20 and remains in his 6 ft. x 8 ft. jail cell in Louisiana’s Wade Correctional Center.
According to the Associated Press, Woodfox’s lawyers claimed that prison guards were performing up to six cavity searches a day on the 67-year-old prisoner. Woodfox wasn't allowed to have his hands unshackled to read his court victory on Nov. 20.
“The guards wouldn’t release even one shackle from his hand so that he could turn the pages [of the court's ruling]. I had to turn them for him,” Woodfox's lawyer Carine Williams told The Guardian.
“Louisiana has fought hard, and they have lost at every turn,” added Williams. “I am hoping that they are sobered by this unanimous court decision and instead of being aggressive and going forward with a retrial they will stop and reflect on what they have done.”
The New York Times slammed the State of Louisiana in an editorial over the weekend:
Mr. Woodfox, who was serving a sentence for armed robbery at the time of the murder, would most likely have been released from solitary many years ago if he had pleaded guilty to the murder. But he has consistently denied any involvement, believing that he was targeted because of his political activism as a member of the Black Panther Party.
The facts of the case were on his side: There was no physical evidence linking him or his co-defendant, Herman Wallace, to the murder, and prosecutors did not reveal that their main witness had been bribed to testify against the men. Mr. Woodfox, by all accounts, has been a model prisoner, and under Louisiana prison policy this should have earned him his exit from solitary confinement years ago.
State officials insist their case is solid and have already said they intend to retry him, though the prison guard’s widow believes he is innocent of the killing and most of the potential witnesses in the case are dead.
Even comparatively brief solitary confinement can cause severe mental and emotional trauma; a United Nations expert has said that more than 15 days may amount to torture. When it is imposed for more than 40 years, it is barbaric beyond measure.
Democracy Now noted that Woodfox stated "In The Land of the Free," a 2010 documentary (video below), "If a cause is noble enough you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. And I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. So, therefore, they could never break me. They might bend me a little bit. They may cause me a lot of pain. They may even take my life, but they will never be able to break me."