Dissenter FeaturedThe Dissenter

After Release, Albert Woodfox Pledges To Fight For End To ‘Barbarous Use of Solitary’

Albert Woodfox, known as one of the “Angola 3,” was finally released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. He spent over four decades in solitary confinement, and had his conviction for second-degree murder overturned three times. Each time, despite clear evidence of abuse and corruption, the state of Louisiana re-indicted him for a new trial.

Woodfox was the last member of the “Angola 3” to be released from prison. The other two members, Robert King and Herman Wallace, were released in 2001 and 2013 respectively. Wallace died of liver cancer days after his release. Both King and Wallace spent decades in solitary confinement.

Today is Woodfox’s 69th birthday. He thanked supporters, including King and Wallace, who stood by him all these years. He also thanked “members of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, Amnesty International, and the Roddick Foundation,” all of which supported him during his “long struggle.” He thanked his lawyers for “never giving up.”

Woodfox’s release came after he pled “no-contest” to two lesser charges against him because the state of Louisiana indicted him yet another time. It means he “does not contest that the State would present evidence at a new trial from witnesses who said he committed this crime,” according to a statement from his legal team. However, he maintains his innocence, as he has done throughout the past decades.

“Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case now and obtain my release with this no-contest plea to lesser charges. I hope the events of today will bring closure to many,” Woodfox declared.

George Kendall, an attorney for Woodfox, said his legal team were “overjoyed” that he is finally free, but it is “indefensible he was forced to endure decade after decade in harsh solitary confinement conditions, longer than any prisoner in the history of the United States.”

“Albert survived the extreme and cruel punishment of forty-plus years in solitary confinement only because of his extraordinary strength and character,” Kendall added. “These inhumane practices must stop. We hope the Louisiana Department of Corrections will reform and greatly limit its use of solitary confinement as have an increasing number of jurisdictions around the country.”

The International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 celebrated the release. “This victory belongs to all of us and should motivate us to stand up and demand even more fervently that long-term solitary confinement be abolished, and all the innocent and wrongfully incarcerated be freed.”

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez once condemned the indefinite solitary confinement imposed against Woodfox, saying it amounted to torture and needed to be ended immediately.

Both King and Woodfox have a civil lawsuit against the State of Louisiana, which challenges the constitutionality of the solitary confinement they were forced to endure. Woodfox said, “I can now direct all my efforts to ending the barbarous use of solitary confinement and will continue my work on that issue here in the free world.”

Woodfox successfully argued he faced “racial discrimination in the grand jury composition in his case,” which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld on November 20, 2014.

A federal district court barred Woodfox from retrial on June 8, 2015. The state of Louisiana appealed and Woodfox’s release from jail was blocked.

On November 9, 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling against retrial. The decision argued the case did not present a “constitutional violation,” which could not be remedied with another trial. The court also maintained that “exceptional circumstances” did not make a new trial unjust.

The appeals court stunningly determined none of Woodfox’s constitutional rights would be violated if he was subject to a third trial. They ignored his age, poor health, and the lapse of time from his first trial in 1973 to a third trial, which would prejudice his ability to bring a defense. Judges overlooked questionable litigation tactics by the State of Louisiana, evidence which proves his innocence, and the lack of physical evidence tying Woodfox to the murder of a Louisiana State Penitentiary officer. They disregarded the four decades-plus time spent in solitary confinement, previous trials which suffered from the constitutional defect of racial discrimination in grand jury foreperson selection, and the astounding fact that the State of Louisiana would get a “third bite at the apple” to prosecute him.

A dissenting judge, James L. Dennis, recognized, “For the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction to justify what [Supreme Court] Justice [Anthony] Kennedy recently described as the ‘terrible price’ paid by those suffering ‘[y]ears on end of near-total isolation.'” He argued their were “exceptional circumstances” to bar his re-prosecution.

Dennis called attention to “troubling tactics” the State of Louisiana previously used to obtain an arrest warrant for Woodfox and keep him from being released. The State circumvented the distirct court when it affirmed habeas relief for Woodfox. It was also found that the State of Louisiana made “inflammatory statements to the third grand jury in order to obtain a third indictment.”

Throughout the past years, Teenie Rogers, the widow of the slain guard, has demanded the State of Louisiana release Woodfox. She does not believe Woodfox (or Wallace) was involved in the murder of her husband, according to NOLA.com.

“I think it’s time the state stop acting like there is any evidence that Albert Woodfox killed Brent,” Rogers previously stated. “After a lot of years looking at the evidence and soul-searching and praying, I realized I could no longer just believe what I was told to believe by a state that did not take care of Brent [her husband] when he was working at Angola and did not take care of me when he was killed.”

Despite all the injustice and unconstitutional activity which Woodfox survived, he exited prison today and smiled for a camera. He demonstrated that the State of Louisiana had not broken his spirit, and the State of Louisiana will never break him.

The racist brutality inflicted upon Woodfox (as well as King and Wallace) now becomes an even greater flashpoint in a struggle to abolish solitary confinement in the United States.

“It is past time for our nation to leave behind its shameful legacy of being one of the only developed countries in the world that still relies so heavily on the outdated and ineffective corrections practice of indefinite solitary confinement,” Katherine Kimpel, one of Woodfox’s lawyers, stated. “That Albert Woodfox served over four decades in solitary confinement shocks the conscience and is a national embarrassment.”

Kimpel suggested Americans take advantage of the “growing national consensus regarding corrections reform” to ensure that, if anyone entered America’s prisons, they would not see the kind of disgusting, cruel, and unusual punishment, which Woodfox endured.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."