One of the Angola Three recalls life in solitary confinement
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Robert King says he watched nearly three decades of his life fade away in solitary confinement inside Louisiana’s Angola prison, sometimes glimpsing the world through a small window and longing for the few hours a week he might feel the sun on his face.
“We were caged up,” said King, who was released in 2001 after a court reversed his conviction in the death of a fellow inmate in 1973. “I don’t think a person can go through that and come up unscathed.”
King is one of three men known as the “Angola Three,” who supporters say spent decades in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, often referred to simply as Angola, the town in which it’s located.
Another man, Herman Wallace, was released in October 2013 when a judge granted him a new trial and died days later.
Now, King is closely watching the fate of the last of the three, Albert Woodfox, after a judge this week ordered his immediate release and barred the state from trying him a third time in the killing of a prison guard in 1972.
The attorney general is fighting that ruling and won an emergency stay keeping him in jail while the two sides argue the matter before an appeals court.
In court filings Wednesday, Woodfox’s lawyers argued that he does not pose a flight risk if released, needs medical attention and would submit to electronic surveillance if released.
The lawyers also argued that prosecutors’ claims that Woodfox was dangerous were “starkly untrue.”
State officials have said repeatedly that the evidence shows he is a killer. They say Woodfox has been in a form of protective custody called closed cell restriction, but not solitary confinement. They say he’s allowed to watch television through the bars of his cell, talk to other inmates in his tier, read books, talk to visiting chaplains and leave his cell every day for an hour.
“The perception of ‘solitary confinement’ is a far cry from the reality,” said Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office.
For now, Woodfox is being held in a jail where he’s awaited his new trial since February. His supporters estimate he’s spent a total of more than four decades in isolation, with some breaks in the 1990s and in 2008.
It’s a situation King knows well. He spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from Austin, Texas, where he now lives.
King said he was shackled at the hands and feet anytime he left his cell. He said he could see and converse with a handful of other inmates in the immediate vicinity, but they all had to be careful not to talk too loud, or too much, or they would be written up.
The conditions changed over time. At first there was no window or time outside, but eventually he was allowed outside for short periods a few times a week and given a cell with a window.
“If it was raining, too hot, too cold, they wouldn’t let us go outside, and they wouldn’t give us makeup time,” he said.
Many experts say such conditions, whatever the name, can have detrimental effects on inmates. Some have reported anxiety, paranoia, depression and hallucinations, said Dr. Sharon Shalev, a research associate from the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford who runs the website www.solitaryconfinement.org.
Shalev said she’s had prisoners tell her they harmed themselves just to reaffirm they were still alive.
There are no precise figures on the number of inmates held in isolation, the Vera Institute of Justice said in a May report. However, the report said estimates range from 25,000 — which includes only those held in so-called supermax facilities — to 80,000, which includes those held in some type of segregated housing across all state and federal prisons.
The report also said inmates in isolation are more likely to kill or hurt themselves than those held in the general population.
What has made the case of the Angola Three and Woodfox in particular such a lightning rod for international attention has been the length of time they were in isolation. Tory Pegram of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 said Woodfox was first put in solitary in April 1972, the same day the guard he was eventually accused of killing died.
Louisiana corrections officials have said he was in closed cell restriction for many years but declined to elaborate because litigation is pending.
Meanwhile, King is eagerly awaiting his friend’s release. He started driving from his home in Austin on Tuesday to meet Woodfox when he was released but turned around when that release was delayed. But he plans to be there if and when Woodfox walks out of the jail.
In the years since his release, King has written a book and often gives talks on his experiences. When asked how he didn’t go crazy, he replied, laughing, “I didn’t say I wasn’t crazy.”
“It was bitter,” he said. “But there are some things that you can make out of lemons. I just tried every day to make lemonade.”
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