Albert Woodfox's 43-Year Isolation Illustrates The Dangers of Solitary Confinement

June 9th 2015

Albert Woodfox was already serving a sentence for armed robbery when he was charged and convicted with the murder of Brent Miller, a Louisiana prison guard killed during a riot in 1972 at the state's Angola prison. 

In connection with the murder, Woodfox and two other inmates were placed in solitary confinement, becoming famously known as the Angola 3 for spending decades isolated in their cells. Though his co-defendants have since been released, Woodfox, who has maintained his innocence over the years, remained, more or less condemned to a life in solitary––until yesterday. 

On Monday evening, a federal judge ordered the release of Woodfox, 68, who was the longest serving prison inmate in continuous solitary confinement, ending a 43-year stint spent isolated in his cell. 

The conditions of his time behind bars were abhorrent. As a November New York Times Op-Ed described it, Woodfox spent 23 hours a day, plus an extra 45 minutes on weekends, alone in a windowless, closet-sized cell. His contact with others was severely restricted; he ate alone, was barred from participating in educational and religious activities the prison offered, and had limited contact with visitors. Moreover, he was under constant supervision, chained to guards whenever he left his cell. Yet this didn't stop prison employees from conducting visual body cavity searches, sometimes up to six times a day. These conditions, day in and day out, the Times called "barbaric beyond measure." 

Woodfox was convicted twice for the murder despite no physical evidence linking him, and the prosecutor's use of bribed witnesses testifying against him. Both convictions have been overturned––first because of racial bias in the jury, and then because of ineffective lawyering. Woodfox has also been a model prisoner, according to the Times. But the state maintains that it has a strong case against him, and plans to appeal the judge's decision Monday, even though most of the witnesses in the case have died, and the guard's widow believes that Woodfox is innocent. The federal judge Monday took an extraordinary step of barring state prosecutors from trying Woodfox for a third time, though a spokesman for the state's attorney general said it would appeal the ruling in a 5th circuit court in order "to make sure this murderer stays in prison and remains fully accountable for his actions." 

Woodfox's case illustrates an extreme form of a punishment by the U.S. criminal justice system. In cases nationwide, prisoners are isolated in closed cells for 22-24 hours per day, virtually free of human contact for periods spanning days to weeks, and in some cases, years.

In a recent video over at Fusion from the artist and writer Molly Crabapple, the concrete and current dangers of solitary confinement are beautifully, hauntingly rendered. Reports have indicated that the approximately 80,000 people held in solitary confinement are often punished for infractions one former solitary detainee called "shockingly trivial." These can range from reading the wrong book, drawing the wrong pictures, or having a tattoo, as Crabapple points out in the video. (Woodfox and the other Angola 3 members believe they were fingered for the murder because of their political affiliations in the prison.)

Small measures have been taken by various state governments to curb the destructive isolation that solitary confinement imposes on detainees. Last year alone, ten states took measures to rein in the practice––the most significant marker of progress on the issue in 16 years. But as Crabapple's piece illustrates, much-needed comprehensive reform could be a long way off. 

Through clever euphemism, the isolating practice of locking someone in a tiny room with little to no interaction might seem innocuous, or more akin to rehabilitative care centers: “Security Housing Units” in California; “Intensive Management Units” in Oregon; “Restricted Housing Units” in Pennsylvania; “Communication Management Units” federally. But all sugarcoating aside, solitary is anything but harmless, especially for a growing population of younger inmates.  

The most recent estimates peg the number of juveniles detained in the U.S. at around 70,000. And in 2003, which is the most recent survey data available, around 35 percent of those juveniles had spent time in isolation, with more than half isolated for more than 24 hours at a time. For that 35 percent, the social, physiological, and neurological affects are crucial to consider. A Justice Department investigation from 2002 showed that even very short periods of isolation can lead to symptoms of paranoia, anxiety and depression, and even suicide among young people.

Speaking in The Atlantic, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz explained that the “experience of isolation is especially frightening, traumatizing, and stressful for juveniles, […] these traumatic experiences can interfere with and damage these essential developmental processes, and the damage may be irreparable.” Haney’s comments point to what is likely the most egregious issue lurking in the decision to put juveniles in solitary—that willingly locking young adults in proven, traumatic environments butts heads with the knowledge that the young adult phase is one of major development in the frontal lobe portion of the brain. That portion, specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is linked to the inhibition of impulses and the way we consider consequences. Trauma during this time can inhibit the development of things like planning, strategizing, and the organization of thoughts or actions in juveniles. 

Like other facets of the criminal justice system, solitary confinement raises questions about the relationship between the crime and punishment. Does locking away challenging young inmates answer the problems they might create? Even Attorney General Eric Holder didn’t think so when he addressed the problem in a video message posted to the Justice Department website last May. “Across the country, far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth,” he said. “But solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.” Holder’s isn’t the only lofty opinion to come out in dissent of these practices, either. 

Other institutions that recognize the blatant roadblock solitary can impose on the task of rehabilitating inmates include the ACLU, the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, the UN expert on torture, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. While the UN expert argued that it could be seen as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” the attorney general’s task force noted that around half of suicides in juvenile facilities occurred in isolation, with a further 62 percent of victims having a history of solitary confinement. 

While the reality is bleak, there could be some light at the end of the tunnel. Some states are slowly reforming their policies away from solitary confinement for younger inmates. Last February, the New York Civil Liberties Union announced that state corrections officials agreed to adopt new guidelines limiting the duration of solitary while halting its use for more vulnerable populations, i.e. youth, pregnant, and developmentally and intellectually disabled inmates—the latter a problem in itself. This means inmates under 18 will receive at least five hours, five days per week outside their cell for exercise or other programming. So far, New York is the largest state to do this. 

More recently, a Justice Department lawsuit was settled in Ohio last May that will require the state to “sharply reduce and eventually end solitary confinement,” according to the New York Times. “It will also ensure that young people receive individual mental health treatment and educational services with the aim of preventing the disruptive behaviors that led to the confinement in the first place,” said the paper under the headline “A Model for Juvenile Detention Reform.” 

In November, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio addressed some of the “dehumanizing” problems plaguing the infamous Rikers Island jail. Though union leaders and city officials don’t always agree, de Blasio said that they’re all more or less on the same page regarding juvenile solitary confinement. “I think the history is one of neglect and lack of creativity and lack of belief and disregard for the human beings involved,” he told the Observer. 

Solitary confinement is still a far-reaching problem in this country, and as many have pointed out, it shouldn’t be an option for young offenders we want to help rehabilitate and send back into society. There’s hope slowly building, but currently there’s one thing we can be certain of: buried within a system ostensibly tasked with rehabilitating young inmates who break the law, solitary confinement and isolation seem to do anything but.

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