Monday, March 31, 2008

A True Test of Civility.

Imagine spending thirty-six years in prison. No thank you. Often you'll hear people (who obviously have no idea what they are talking about) ranting about how easy inmates have it in the United States. They'll say,"Color television, porn mags... don't have to work for a living... free food and get to sit around all day. I wish I had that kind of life." Whenever I hear someone talk like that, I join them in their desire to get their wish. Not the one that they imagine as some sort of gift for the guilty- but the reality that incarcerated criminals face in America. I'd love to see them react to having their freedom taken away. I'd love to see them sweat through the nights in a cell, wondering when they would have to face the next predator, eager for the fresh meat of a 'fish'. They would surely generate a new perspective facing 36 years in the slammer.

As if being stuck in 'gen pop' for three-and-a-half decades isn't bad enough, imagine that you have to serve all of that time in solitary confinement. You may think that our civil rights protect us from that kind of fate. Think again. Herman Wallace and Alfred Woodfox have been housed in the solitary unit at Angola Prison in Louisiana since 1972. The two convicts were sent to lockdown for allegedly murdering corrections officer Brent Miller during a prison riot. Along with a man named Robert King Wilkerson, they were known as the 'Angola 3'. Every two weeks since being moved to isolation, they have shown up at their reviews only to be told they had no hope of escaping their plight.

What is it actually like where Wallace and Woodfox have been 'housed'? Prisoners are kept in their cells for 23 hours of each day. They eat every meal in that little 6" x 9" box. They are allowed to go to the showers and walk alone on the tier during that remaining hour. Once every three days, they can spend one hour by themselves in an outdoor caged yard. If they are lucky and know someone in the ward, they might yell to them through the walls. Their personal property, reading materials and visitation rights are restricted. There is increasing research in the mental health community that shows that isolation can lead to mental and emotional breakdowns, as well as psychotic episodes. Specific symptoms can (and often do) include Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, visual and auditory hallucinations, hypersensitivity, paranoia, insomnia, and suicidal ideation. But what the heck... commit the crime, do the time, right? No, it's not that simple.

Apparently there is significant doubt over whether Woodfox and Wallace were ever guilty of the crime that got them put into solitary in the first place. Reportedly the Angola 3 were Black Panthers who were actively organizing to stop a prisoner sex slavery ring and to end racial segregation within Angola. When Brent Miller was initially found dead from stab wounds, the prison warden immediately fingered Woodfox and Wallace. In the subsequent trial, inmate witnesses were given cigarettes and promised other deals to testify against the defendants. Robert King Wilkerson was released from lockdown in 2001, after being there for 29 years. He had been accused and found guilty of murdering another inmate. After being exonerated, Wilkerson devoted his freedom to publicizing the plight of his imprisoned comrades.

The attorney for Woodfox and Wallace was recently stunned during a routine visit to find that the current Angola warden had released the prisoners into a dormitory setting. Of course they are still imprisoned, but their case is under review in higher courts. Now in their 60's, these men are clearly no threat to the security of other inmates, or the institution in general. The larger issue is the constitutionality of prolonged solitary confinement. The 8th Amendment of the Bill of Rights assures us that US citizens are free from the threat of "cruel and unusual punishment". Sadly for Americans, this concept is being challenged at the federal level. The fabled 'War on Terror' has allowed the Bush administration to chip away at our civil liberties. Much of the nation has already accepted torture as a means of punishing 'non-military combatants'. Guess what... that term can easily be applied to the government's perceived enemies at home.

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