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Fifth Circuit Holds Four Decades in Solitary Confinement Implicates Liberty Interest; Last Angola 3 Member Finally Released

On December 17, 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that holding a prisoner in solitary confinement for almost 40 years implicated a liberty interest, and that prison officials could be liable for failing to provide adequate due process.

Louisiana state prisoner Albert Woodfox was convicted of killing prison guard Brent Miller at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1972. As soon as he became a suspect in the murder, he was placed in a form of solitary confinement known as extended lockdown or closed-cell restriction (CCR). Prisoners in CCR remain alone in their 6 x 9’ cells 23 hours a day. “During the other hour, a prisoner may shower and walk along the tier in which his cell is located. Three times a week, the prisoner may use this hour to exercise alone in a fenced yard, if the weather permits.”

Compared to prisoners in general population, CCR prisoners also face restrictions on their personal property, reading materials, ability to attend religious services, and access to legal resources, educational opportunities, job assignments and visitation.

Woodfox remained in CCR almost the entire time he was at Angola until his transfer to the David Wade Correctional Facility in November 2010, where he was also placed in CCR. In 2013, he filed a federal civil rights complaint against officials at Wade pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.

CCR prisoners appear before a review board every 90 days to determine whether they should be returned to the general population. Woodfox alleged the reviews were inadequate “shams.” The district court found that his “placement in CCR was and remains indefinite.”

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that Woodfox’s placement in CCR was an initial security classification and did not implicate his due process rights. The court denied the motion and the defendants appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that an initial security classification did not excuse the defendants from due process requirements. If a prisoner’s placement in CCR amounted to an “atypical and significant hardship” compared to the normal instances of prison life, it implicated a liberty interest and due process must be provided.

The appellate court found that CCR conditions were similar to those experienced by prisoners confined to administrative segregation and thus constituted an “atypical and significant hardship,” and that lengthy placement in CCR implicated a liberty interest. The Court of Appeals was unable to find another prisoner who had endured solitary confinement for anything close to Woodfox’s 39-plus years.

The Fifth Circuit held that all of Woodfox’s CCR confinement should be considered, not just the years since he was transferred to Wade. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209 (2005) [PLN, Aug. 2005, p.24], indefinite placement in “highly restrictive conditions” implicates a liberty interest even if it is the result of an initial classification decision. Therefore, the defendants were required to provide due process when Woodfox was transferred to Wade and at subsequent reviews, and the trial court did not err when it found that genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment on the question of whether the review procedures for CCR placement at Wade were constitutionally adequate. The judgment of the district court was affirmed. See: Wilkerson v. Goodwin, 774 F.3d 845 (5th Cir. 2014).

Following remand, U.S. District Court Judge James Brady granted Woodfox’s unconditional release and barred the state from retrying him on June 8, 2015. However, that ruling was overturned on appeal. The case settled while Woodfox was awaiting his third trial, and he was released on February 19, 2016 after serving 43 years in solitary confinement. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.46]. He was the last member of the “Angola 3” to be released; Robert King’s conviction was overturned in 2001 and he was freed after serving 29 years in isolation, while Herman Wallace was released in October 2013 and died of liver cancer just days later. [See: PLN, April 2004, p.12; June 2001, p.18]. All three had been involved in the Black Panthers movement at Angola, which resulted in their ongoing placement in solitary.

How did Woodfox and the other members of the Angola 3 preserve their sanity during decades of solitary confinement? “We made a conscious decision that we would never become institutionalized,” Woodfox said in an interview following his release. “As the years went by, we made efforts to improve and motivate ourselves.”

“We made sure we always remained concerned about what was going on in society – that way we knew that we would never give up,” he added. “I promised myself that I would not let them break me, not let them drive me insane.”

Although Woodfox agreed to plead no contest to obtain his release from prison, he has maintained that he was not involved in Brent Miller’s murder. “I am innocent,” he told The Guardian newspaper. “The fact that I was convicted the first and second times had more to do with racism in the American judicial system than with innocence or guilt.”

He plans to continue advocating for criminal justice reform, specifically in regard to the placement of prisoners in solitary. “Solitary confinement is the most torturous experience a human being can be put through in prison. It’s punishment without ending. We have got to stop this, and having been a victim of it for so long myself, that’s what I’m going to do.”

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