By Tessa Murphy, Amnesty International Campaigner in the USA Team,
17th April 2012 marks forty years since Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were placed in solitary confinement in Louisiana State prison. During these four decades they have been confined to their 2 X 3 metre cells for 23 hours a day. In these tiny spaces, devoid of all but a shaft of natural light through a small window, they have had limited access to books, TV, newspapers; no access to educational programs, nor to work. Social interaction – which most of us take for granted – is limited to occasional visits from friends or family, or a phone call. Solitary ‘exercise’ takes place three hours a week in an outdoor cage which in another context, could easily be mistaken for a dog run.
Over the years, the men’s placement in these conditions have been ‘reviewed’ by prison authorities; these reviews have not been meaningful: no consideration is given to whether the men should be held in such stark conditions – after all, neither man has committed any serious disciplinary infraction for decades and mental health records indicate that the men pose no threat to themselves or others. According to the 90 day reviews, their continued isolation is justified by the “original reason for lockdown”. This is very disturbing given that Louisiana prison policy was changed sixteen years ago to disallow this as a reason to keep a prisoner in continued isolation.
So, why are Louisiana authorities bending their own policies to keep the men in isolation? Albert and Herman entered prison in 1971 on separate charges of armed robbery. In 1972 they were charged and later convicted of the murder of a prison guard – charges that have always been denied. During the many years of litigation on the case, evidence has emerged to suggest that the decision to keep the men in solitary may be based in part on their political activism – they were founding members of the prison chapter of the Black Panther Party.
We at Amnesty International believe that the decades of isolation and cellular confinement under which Albert and Herman continue to be held in the Louisiana prison system is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of international standards. On the 40th anniversary of their placement into solitary confinement we are re-issuing our call to the Governor of Louisiana demanding that Albert and Herman immediately be removed from solitary confinement. Join our call by signing our petition here. We will hand over your signatures to the Governor’s office on 17 April to mark the anniversary.
Albert and Herman told us that “Amnesty International has launched a powerful challenge on our behalf. We need to send a clear message that keeping us incarcerated in solitary confinement for 40 years is not acceptable. Your moral condemnation and the action that you take when you sign the Amnesty petition makes a critical difference. We want to thank Amnesty International and you for all that you do and ask that you join us in our four decades of struggle for justice”.