The United Nations has demanded states ban solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days, calling it an act of torture. A U.S. judge ordered Tuesday the release of prisoner Albert Woodfox from solitary confinement, where he has been kept for 43 years for a crime he did not commit.
Woodfox is one of three inmates known as the ‘Angola Three‘ who were thrown into isolation in 1972, after being accused of killing a guard during a prison riot.
Over the course of the years, Woodfox was twice convicted at trial for the guard’s murder, but both convictions were overturned on the grounds of racial prejudice and lack of evidence.
He has been waiting in solitary confinement for the third trial to begin. U.S. district judge James Brady, who presided over the case from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ordered Woodfox’s unconditional release and ruled that he could not be tried again for the guard’s death.
“The only just remedy is an unconditional writ of habeas corpus barring retrial of Mr. Albert Woodfox and releasing Mr. Woodfox from custody immediately,” Brady wrote.
His lawyers, George Kendall and Carine Williams, went to seek Woodfox’ release Monday night.
“Mr. Woodfox has spent 40 years in solitary confinement under constitutionally invalid convictions,” they said, happy and relieved with the ruling.
“The only just remedy is his immediate release from prison.”
Not everyone was happy with the federal judges decision this week, however. Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell has vowed to appeal.
“With today’s order, the court would see fit to set free a twice-convicted murderer,” said Aaron Sadler, a spokesperson for Caldwell. He called the judge’s ruling a “free pass” to freedom “based on faulty procedural issues.” Woodfox, now 68 years old, is the last of the three to be released from solitary confinement.
After spending 43 years alone, he has been the longest serving solitary confinement inmate in the country.
His case has drawn international condemnation, with human rights groups calling his treatment an act of torture. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez had previously called on the U.S. to immediately end the solitary confinement imposed on Woodfox, but has been ignored by U.S. authorities for almost two years.
“Keeping Albert Woodfox in solitary confinement for more than four decades clearly amounts to torture and it should be lifted immediately,” said Mr. Mendez in October, 2013. “I am deeply concerned about his physical and mental condition,” he added.
According to Tory Pegram of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, Woodfox has been staying in a cell measuring eight by 12 feet, and was allowed to exercise for one hour three times a week.
The Angola Three were named after the Louisiana penitentiary where they were being held, which lies in close proximity to the former Angola plantation. The other two members of the trio include Robert King and Herman Wallace, who were both released when their conviction was overturned in 2001 and 2013, respectively. They were all initially serving time for armed robbery. When the three men were sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1971, they helped establish a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party, a militant group that defended the rights of African Americans in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. At the time, they were active in hunger strikes and work stoppages to protest against the conditions inside the infamous prison. Riots also ensued.
The men believe they were singled out for the 1972 riot killing because of their activism, but maintained they were not responsible for the death.
“We look forward to Mr. Woodfox going home to his family; getting much needed medical attention; and living the remainder of his days in peace,” said Woodfox’s lawyers.
The United Nations has previously called on all states to ban solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days. But according to the U.S. based advocacy website Solitary Watch, there are currently some 25,000 individuals being held in long-term isolation in the nation’s “supermax” facilities.
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