June 18, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Albert Woodfox drew international media attention last week when U.S. District Judge James Brady ordered the 68 year-old’s immediate release from Louisiana’s Angola prison. Woodfox is part of the so-called Angola 3, federal inmates who claim to have been targeted by officials in the 1970’s for their participation in the Black Panther Party and calls for prison reform.
Woodfox, who was initially incarcerated at Angola for armed robbery, was subsequently convicted on charges related to the 1972 death of Brent Miller, a white prison guard. Despite the support of those who insist that Woodfox was unfairly prosecuted, he has spent most of the past four decades confined alone, reportedly longer than any other prisoner in U.S. history.
Advocates for criminal justice reform have embraced Woodfox’s case as a cause de célèbre. Woodfox serves as an icon of so much that is wrong with American prosecutions and prisons — punishment of those who speak out about conditions in the penal system, corrupt convictions, the controversial practice of solitary confinement. Concerns about race-based bias cast a pallor on every piece of the Angola 3’s story.
So, when Judge Brady ordered Woodfox released last week, the activist community heralded the move as a hard-fought, long overdue victory for justice. Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, issued a press release stating that “Judge Brady’s decision to grant him unconditional release should have certainly ended this 43-year-long nightmare.” Finally, the hero is vindicated. Right?
Not so fast. There are several reasons why people passionate about justice can pick a much better hero than Albert Woodfox.
When Solitary Confinement Is Not So Solitary
Press coverage of the story focuses heavily on the conditions under which Angola officials have held Woodfox. Amy Goodman, ever the voice of moderation, recently penned a piece called “Kalief Browder, Albert Woodfox and the Torture of Solitary Confinement.” In it, Goodman writes,
There are an estimated 80,000 – 100,000 prisoners held in some form of solitary confinement in the United States. The United Nations says the practice often amounts to torture. It is cruel and unusual punishment, and it must be abolished once and for all.
The New York Times had earlier called Woodfox’s confinement “barbaric beyond measure.”
There are significant reasons why solitary confinement might be a very bad idea. But Albert Woodfox is a lame posterboy for reformers to hold up as an example of the possible cruelty of solitary confinement.
Technically, Woodfox has not spent his sentence in solitary confinement at all. Woodfox has spent the majority of his time in “Closed Cell Restricted” conditions, what is known as “extended lockdown” at Angola. CCR is the most forgiving of three categories of protective custody within the prison. It is supposed to be non-punitive, unlike Angola’s Camp J and “administrative segregation — aka the “Hole.”
Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell described the Angola 3’s conditions in an earlier press statement:
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. They also can shop at the canteen store a couple of times per week where they can purchase grocery and personal hygiene items which they keep in their cells.
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. 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.
Caldwell’s description suffers from a few rhetorical flourishes, but it is not inconsistent with statements made by CCR inmates, including Albert Woodfox himself. According to an interview with Woodfox by the Associated Press, “He said he could see and converse with a handful of other inmates in the immediate vicinity, but that they all had to be careful not to talk too loud, or too much, or they would be written up.” The AP reports that Woodfox was given a cell with a window and the opportunity to go outside a few times a week, though Woodfox said, “If it was raining, too hot, too cold, they wouldn’t let us go outside, and they wouldn’t give us makeup time.”
Closed Cell Restriction at Angola limits the inmate to 23 hours per day in a 6-foot by 9-foot space. No doubt that is a tight squeeze. However, I have lived in more than one 10’x12’ studio apartment . . . and I was was paying exorbitant urban rent for the privilege, not being punished by the State. In CCR, Woodfox is allowed to watch television through the bars of his cell, whereas I didn’t even own a TV when I lived in those shitty studio apartments.
Last week, the New York Times quoted Angela Allen-Bell, an assistant professor of legal writing and analysis at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge as saying that Woodfox told her on Monday night that he has been having “panic attacks and is suffering from health problems, including diabetes.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has shared more than small talk with me that I have been having panic attacks and suffering from mental health problems since I was about ten. However, it probably would come as a surprise if my neuroses were the result of a tiny apartment. All these years, I have been paying psychiatrists when what I needed after all was a good real estate agent.
I know I’m being glib, insensitive. I accept that my irreverence will send me to Hell . . . but only if my Hell looks like Woodfox’s solitary confinement.
Maybe Louisiana’s insistence that Woodfox’s category of custody is not called “solitary confinement” is no more than linguistic legerdemain. If a rose by any other name smells as sweet, solitary confinement by any other name smells as foul. Even so, the conditions Woodfox himself described are hardly as barbaric as many might imagine when they hear the term “solitary confinement.”
I, for one, welcome the debate about the costs of solitary confinement as an acceptable punishment in our nation’s prisons. I just can think of other inmates who are more apt to represent the cause.
When Innocence Isn’t Obvious
After Judge Brady ordered Woodfox released without the possibility of retrial, the State of Louisiana appealed the order. Last Friday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted the State of Louisiana’s motion for a stay of Judge Brady’s order for the duration of the appeal on the merits.
In order to grant the stay motion, the Fifth Circuit had to find that the State was likely to eventually prevail on the merits question. As the opinion notes, unconditional federal habeas writs barring a state retrial are generally limited to situations where the error at issue “cannot be remedied by another trial” and is “simply incurable, such as conviction under an unconstitutional statute.”
So, Woodfox will remain in custody at Angola at least until the Fifth Circuit can decide the State’s appeal. If Woodfox wins on appeal, he will then be released. If the State wins on appeal, he will most likely face a new trial. Whether he then gets released depends on the outcome of the trial.
Casual observers might be confused by this, in part because they may have something different in mind when journalists or Woodfox supporters use phrases like “overturned conviction” to describe the case. Lawyers should be savvy enough to distinguish among the different grounds on which a conviction can be later overturned. Laypeople, though, tend to think that all post-conviction relief is a successful “actual innocence” claim.
Woodfox has never succeeded on an actual innocence claim. Rather, after years of contesting his conviction through direct appeal and exhausting his state remedies, Woodfox eventually won federal habeas relief. Federal district courts have twice ruled, in effect, that something was so seriously wrong with Woodfox’s trials that he deserves a new one. The first time, Woodfox convinced the court that he had ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. The second time, the court found that the jury foreperson at his trial had been selected on racially discriminatory grounds.
These are serious defects, to be sure. Indeed, surviving the dizzying proceedings necessary for a state prisoner’s federal habeas claim to even reach a federal court under AEDPA is rather impressive in an of itself. Albert Woodfox deserves a fair trial, which it appears that he has not yet received. Receiving an unfair trial does not mean though that he is innocent, any more than receiving an unfair trial meant that he was actually guilty. Mayhaps he is. Mayhaps he ain’t.
Advocates for justice can fight for the rights of people accused of crimes to get fair trials without confusing Albert Woodfox’s case with an actual innocence claim. There are too many people languishing in the penal system who do deserve to prevail on actual innocence for anyone to conflate the two.
Albert Woodfox is entitled to justice. He has been denied due process at various points. None of the foregoing means to suggest otherwise. But is Woodfox the best symbol we have for the need for criminal justice reform? Does he illustrate the worst of prison conditions or the tragedy of someone subsequently found not guilty of the crime of which they were convicted? Not hardly. In a penal system as broken as America’s there are far more qualified candidates for the job.