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Solitary could not break Albert Woodfox, but it breaks too many


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Solitary could not break Albert Woodfox, but it breaks too many

  • Jailed men get help while women languish, Georgia lawsuit claims

  • St. Louis County jailed a pregnant woman for 39 days because she refused a paternity test

  • Thirteen questions for Queens DA candidates

  • Police shot him more than 40 times. Then he was charged with an unsolved murder

  • Will Virginia elect an “alliance of progressive-minded prosecutors”?

  • This day in injustice

In the Spotlight

Solitary could not break Albert Woodfox, but it breaks too many

In February 2016, Albert Woodfox was released from prison. He had spent more than four decades in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison and nearly all that time in solitary confinement. In the years that he was in prison, Woodfox started a chapter of the Black Panther Party, taught fellow incarcerated people to read, sued for better conditions for himself and others, saw his case become a cause celebre and lost his mother and his sister.

Now Woodfox has written the story of those decades, his memoir titled “Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.” It describes, in painstaking detail, the punishment and degradation that prison authorities sought to inflict on Woodfox and his friends Herman Wallace and Robert King and their daily struggle to hold on to their humanity, morality, and sanity.

Woodfox’s story is an indictment of many aspects of our legal system—how institutional racism and poverty made his arrival in prison and that of so many others almost preordained; how prosecutors withheld evidence, and evaded accountability for it; and most of all, how the Department of Corrections’ main objective, as Woodfox puts it, was “to break my spirit.” In hundreds of pages, Woodfox explains how this worked, the near-absolute power invested in prison authorities allowing them to starve, brutalize, and torture people. Chief among their powers, Woodfox shows, is the ability to deprive people of space, light, movement, and human contact through the punishment of solitary confinement.

In Vox last week, Stephanie Wykstra asks the question that Woodfox’s story demands: Are we ready to end solitary confinement in this country? And she highlights what Woodfox’s memoir makes clear but is occasionally lost in conversations—that the fight to end this and other forms of torture is intimately linked to the fight to end the U.S. experiment in mass caging. [Stephanie Wykstra / Vox]

Wykstra takes a comprehensive look at the landscape of segregation and isolation, tracing its early history, how the practice fell out of favor, and then its resurgence with the proliferation of supermax prisons in the 1980s. Wykstra looks at the incalculable toll extreme isolation takes on the bodies and minds of those subject to it—at least a quarter of all suicides in prisons and jails happen in solitary. And she highlights that, as numerous studies confirm, there is nothing to be gained from it in institutional safety.  [Stephanie Wykstra / Vox]

This is a point that is also highlighted in a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report, calling for an end to solitary confinement in Florida prisons. The report looks at the cases of three people placed in isolation, including one who died after nearly four years in solitary. SPLC’s report breaks down the various categories of solitary confinement in Florida prisons, a useful reminder of how the practice goes by many names. [Southern Poverty Law Center]

The fight against solitary has taken many twists and turns, as Wykstra notes. The chances of the Supreme Court ending solitary fell away when Justice Anthony Kennedy left it and while the First Step Act included modest protections first implemented under the Obama administration, we can expect little more at the federal level.

At the same time, efforts at the state level are more ambitious than ever. In Colorado, administrative measures ended solitary confinement beyond 15 days. In both the New York and New Jersey legislatures there are bills with substantial support that would end solitary confinement for anyone beyond 15 days.   [Stephanie Wykstra / Vox]

Throughout his book, Woodfox highlights the power of struggle, his own daily struggle from deep inside a 6-by-9 foot cell, and the collective struggle of people around the world who came together to support the Angola 3. Throughout the book, Woodfox is unsparing in his depiction of how the state tried to break him, Wallace, and King and also unstinting in his gratitude to those who fought for them. He writes at the very end:

“To those of you who are just entering the world of social struggle, welcome. To those of you who have spent years struggling for human rights and social justice: Don’t give up. Look at me and see how the strength and determination of the human spirit defy all evil. For 44 years I defied the state of Louisiana and the Department of Corrections. Their main objective was to break my spirit. They did not break me. I have witnessed the horrors of man’s cruelty to man. I did not lose my humanity. I bear the scars of beatings, loneliness, isolation, and persecution. I am also marked by every kindness.”

Stories From The Appeal

Kesha Brownlee
Courtesy of her family

Jailed Men Get Help While Women Languish, Georgia Lawsuit Claims. Women with mental illness are left in isolation and filth, and often placed in solitary confinement, according to a suit against the Fulton County sheriff. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg]

St. Louis County Jailed a Pregnant Woman For 39 Days Because She Refused a Paternity Test. Adriana Thurman said she was informed by jail staff after her release that she had “slipped through the cracks.” [Katie Rose Quandt]

Stories From Around the Country

Thirteen questions for Queens DA candidates: Law professor Steven Zeidman looks at the Queens district attorney race and laments that “decades of hyper-aggressive policing and punishment have made a “fundamentally humane and moral statement”—candidate Tiffany Caban’s pledge to send as few people as possible to jail and prison—”seem not just progressive but “radical.”’ Zeidman suggests 13 questions for the candidates that would help voters identify those really willing to make a sharp break with the past. The list includes a few questions about whether each candidate, if elected, would end practices specific to the Queens DA’s office (such as the practice of no plea offers “unless the accused waives their statutory right to a prompt grand jury presentation”).  It includes several questions challenging the candidates to end more-widespread prosecution practices that compromise fairness—including by replacing grand juries with preliminary hearings in which witnesses testify under oath and are subject to cross-examination; ending cross-examination about unrelated prior arrests or convictions when an accused person takes the stand to testify in his or her own defense; videotaping all interviews with police witnesses and turning those videos over to the defense; and only opposing release on parole “if there is clear and convincing evidence that the individual is a current threat to public safety.” [Steven Zeidman / Gotham Gazette]

Police shot him more than 40 times. Then he was charged with an unsolved murder: In June 2015, Baltimore police officers shot Keith Davis Jr. 44 times. He was “supposed to die,” Alice Speri of the Intercept writes. At his first trial, Davis was convicted of possessing a gun that was found in the garage where he was shot. Then, prosecutors charged him with murder, alleging that the gun had been used in an unsolved case. He is now facing his fourth trial on murder charges. Speri looks at how “with each trial, new evidence has emerged calling into question both police testimony and prosecutorial conduct in the case” and how “had Davis died in the shooting … police would have easily been able to dismiss his death, as they so often do in these cases, as the ‘justified’ killing of an armed suspect.” [Alice Speri / The Intercept]

Will Virginia elect an “alliance of progressive-minded prosecutors”? Virginia is voting for its commonwealth’s attorneys this year, and some candidates say that they would challenge how prosecutors coalesce to wield influence statewide. Last week, The Appeal: Political Report interviewed Steve Descano, who is challenging Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh on a platform of “ending mass incarceration.” Descano laid out changes he would make if elected, including refraining from filing the highest allowable charges, not prosecuting marijuana possession, and seeking the death penalty. But he also explained that he would form an “alliance of progressive progressives” that could serve as a counterpoint to the “regressive” policies promoted by the Virginia Commonwealth Attorney’s Association, a group that represents the state’s prosecutors. In February, the Political Report interviewed Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who is running in Arlington County and who said that she was hoping to be elected with a “wave of other reform prosecutors,” with whom she may be in a position to “transform the association.” [Daniel Nichanian/The Appeal: Political Report]

This day in injustice:

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