America's Longest Serving Political Detainee Still in Solitary Confinement

Albert Woodfox, held in solitary confinement in America's jails for the last 43 years, remains incarcerated despite recent hopes he would soon be freed. One of the Angola 3, members of the radical sixties Black Panthers organisation held at the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana, Mr Woodfox, 68 and in poor health was tried twice for the killing of a prison guard, twice found guilty but later had his convictions overturned on appeal. He remained incarcerated after winning his appeals because the state of Louisiana promptly filed fresh charges for the same offense. The Louisiana state prosecutor had been proposing to try him for the same crime a third time, 43 years after the fact, until US federal judge James Brady ruled against it on June 8 and ordered his immediate release. It was clear to the judge, and to most others but apparently not to the Louisiana authorities, that with most of the witnesses dead the outcome of this trial would be even less credible than the previous two trials and would only serve to further embarrass America in the eyes of the rest of the worldAlbert Woodfox. The judge said he lacked confidence in the ability of the state to conduct a fair trial. However the state has now appealed Judge Brady's decision to a US appeals court, and Woodfox will remain incarcerated at least until this appeal can be decided.

The conditions of imprisonment of Woodfox and the other two, Herman Wallace and Robert King, have been condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International as inhumane. Human rights advocates have called it torture. We ran a story on the release of Herman Wallace almost two years ago; imprisoned for 41 years, he was eventually set free after being found not guilty in the killing of the Angola prison guard. Suffering from terminal cancer Wallace died a few days after his release.

There is no way to explain the brutal treatment meted out to these men on pathetically flimsy evidence other than through the prism of political incarceration. If these men had not been members of the Black Panthers Organization, if they had not openly challenged the US government and Louisiana state, their treatment would not have been so severe; even if they had been found guilty, with good behaviour in prison they would long ago have been paroled and allowed back into society.

In America's complex legal system each individual state has its own court and penal system quite separate from the US federal system, and there can often be tussles between state justice and US federal justice. Ultimately, though, power and authority rest with the federal system. And it is this system that allowed these three men to be held in solitary confinement for decades, for crimes of which they have never been proved guilty. US district judge James Brady in handing down his decision to release Woodfox was quoted as saying, "there is no valid conviction holding him in prison, let alone solitary confinement." And yet, a few days later a higher federal court, the US appeals court agreed to listen to Louisiana's appeal and keep Woodfox in prison.

It would be incorrect to cast the blame for Woodfox's decades of solitary confinement solely on the Louisiana state system, as retrogressive as this might be. Astonishingly, Woodfox's two appeals against his convictions took decades to be decided in his favour by the federal courts, and each was followed by a decision by Louisiana to retry him for the same offence. The US federal system is as complicit in the whole matter as is Louisiana state. Brave, honest individual federal judges like Judge Brady may stand for the truth, but the system as a whole presents a mockery of justice in this matter. Since one has to assume that the US justice system taken as a whole can not be as repressive as this, that "ordinary" alleged offenders in the US do not languish forty three years in custody without conviction, the inescapable conclusion is that Mr Woodfox has been punished all these years for his political affiiliation with the Black Panther movement and for his organizing activities within the prison rather than for any crimes he may have committed forty three years ago. In a favoured tactic of state repression worldwide, Mr Woodfox has reportedly been pressured by the state to sign a statement admitting his guilt. He has also had the temerity, as authorities would see it, to file a civil law suit against the state. There is apparently a concern by the authorities that if Woodfox were set free without a conviction this would leave them open to charges relating to wrongful imprisonment.

The whole concept of retrials in these situations is dubious. If the state within its system can bias the process and manipulate witnesses (evidence of this has been brought forward in this case) to get a conviction, which is subsequently thrown out by the federal court, and if the state then has leave to retry each time this happens, the cycle could go on indefinitely, until the death of the defendant. It makes a mockery of the concept of a free and fair trial.