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Black Panthers Released From Solitary Confinement

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Jul 25, 2008

Editor's note: Solitary confinement has become standard penal procedure in many prisons, despite protests by human rights activists that it equates to mental and physical torture. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back

The only thing that's different about the barbaric treatment of Robert King Wilkerson, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox from that of thousands of other American prisoners is that they had the dubious distinction of being held in solitary confinement longer than any other known prisoners in American prison history. The three men were held in isolation for more than three decades in the Angola, Louisiana prison.

solitaryThe ludicrously long solitary confinement of the three former Black Panthers, known as the Angola 3, sparked international rage, was condemned by Amnesty International, prompted a congressional visit, and resulted in civil suits and endless court appeals. The three prisoners were convicted in the 1972 slaying of an Angola prison guard.

There was no physical evidence linking them to the murder. They were convicted on the testimony of a serial sex offender serving a life sentence. Despite information that prison officials withheld evidence from jurors, relied on tainted testimony, and the subsequent recanting of their testimony against the men by prosecution witnesses, the three face yet another round of court fights.

Since the early 1990s, thousands of prisoners have been locked up in tiny cells for days, weeks, months and even years on end. They are kept in the cells for up to 23 hours, with limited visiting and exercise privileges. The trend toward dumping problem inmates in solitary confinement has become standard penal procedure in many prisons. In fact, the penchant for isolating prisoners has sparked a mini-boom in the building of isolation cell prisons, where hundreds of inmates serve virtually their entire sentence in solitary confinement.

California was one of the first to launch the maximum-security isolation cell prison boom in 1989, when it built Pelican Bay. In the next few years, Oregon, Mississippi, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and a dozen other states all built new, isolation unit prisons. In 1994 the U.S. Bureau of Prisons built ADX Florence in Colorado. The feds have dumped a virtual "who's who" of convicted international and domestic terrorists in the prison. They include 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, Unibomber Ted Kaczynski, former FBI agent and convicted spy Robert Hansen, Olympic Park and abortion-clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, and many others. By the end of the 1990s, more than 30 states operated control-units, or Supermax prisons. By then, the number of prisoners serving their sentence in isolation cells had sharply risen. A Justice Department study found that some states had piled nearly 20 percent of their inmates in these prisons by the end of the 1990s.

The drastic plunge in crime, nationally, has not stopped the rush by states to lock up even more inmates in isolation cells. By 2005, 40 states were operating Supermax prisons. The prisons held more than 25,000 prisoners. Many of them will spend nearly all of their prison years in solitary confinement.

A number of psychologists, penal experts, and studies have documented the array of mental and physical problems that prolonged isolation can cause. The ACLU and other human rights activists condemned prolonged prisoner isolation as mental and physical torture, and have filed lawsuits against the practice. Even some corrections experts have criticized the use of prolonged solitary confinement as an ineffective get-tough security measure. They say that prisoners confined for long periods are more dangerous and pose an even greater threat to guards and other inmates.

Prison officials and the courts have largely remained deaf to pleas to reduce the use of solitary confinement as an extra punitive control measure for prisoners. The argument that the Louisiana prisoners were wrongly convicted and their isolation was cruel and unusual punishment certainly didn't mean much to Angola prison authorities. Despite protests from activist groups and celebrity notables over their long-term isolation and the compelling evidence that the men were falsely convicted, the years drudged by and the three prisoners remained locked in isolation.

It took a visit to the prison in March by House Judiciary Chair John Conyers before prison officials finally released them from solitary confinement. That's a small victory, but it's not freedom. Wallace's case is currently in a state appeals court. Woodfox's attorneys have asked a federal court to review his case.

The courts may take years to decide whether to free them or not. In the meantime, more and more prisoners will continue to suffer in America's not-so-splendid isolation chambers.

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