Erwin James on the Angola Three

37 years of solitary confinement: the Angola three | Society | The Guardian

I had heard of the Angola Three before today, but this article puts the whole case into very clear detail for anyone else not familiar (and I wasn’t). Two African American men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, have been held in solitary confinement at the Closed Cell Restricted (CCR) block at Angola prison in Louisiana since 1973. The author, Erwin James, is a convicted murderer and spent his first year in prison in a high-security part of a prison where the cell doors were opened only for “slopping out” (of the toilet buckets that were in common use in British prisons at that time) and meals and, sometimes, half an hour’s exercise:

The cells were 10ft x 5ft, with a chair, a table and a bed. You could walk up and down, run on the spot, stand still, or do push-ups and sit-ups – but sooner or later you had to just stop, and think.

As the days, weeks and months blur into one, without realising it you start to live completely inside your head. You dream about the past, in vivid detail – and fantasise about the future, for fantasies are all you have. You panic but it’s no good “getting on the bell” – unless you’re dying – and, even then, don’t hope for a speedy response. I had a lot to think about. When the man in the cell above mine hanged himself I thought about that, a lot. I still do. You look at the bars on the high window and think how easy it would be to be free of all the thinking.

Such thoughts must have crossed the minds of Wallace and Woodfox more than once during their isolation. They are fed through the barred gates of their 9ft x 6ft cells and allowed only one hour of exercise every other day alone in a small caged yard. Their capacity for psychological endurance alone is noteworthy.

Back in 2007, I blogged an article about juveniles facing life without parole in American prisons (Life Without Hope). The most disturbing case involved Nicole Dupure, who was jailed for supposedly helping her boyfriend murder her aunt. She claimed that she was in a nearby diner when the deed was done, but was convicted mainly on the word of her boyfriend, who testified against her (after first saying she was involved, then saying he did it alone) in return for a second-degree murder conviction and a fixed maximum sentence (albeit of twenty to fifth years). While some of those featured were unquestionably guilty, some were involved only peripherally in group enterprises but were convicted of “felony murder”, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole and applies even to participants who were not there at the time of the killing or who did not know that there was a lethal weapon involved. So, there are old men in American prisons serving whole-life sentences for acting as lookouts at the age of 14 or 15.

More recently, I came across the case of Efren Paredes, a Latino schoolboy who was convicted in March 1989 for the murder of a shopkeeper in a robbery in Benton Harbor, Michigan. A number of others who definitely were involved, and who gave information or testimony against him, were not prosecuted or have since been released; he is serving life without parole. Again, a dubious conviction based on information from people with something to gain. There is a well-known problem of such “snitch” evidence in US courts, and it is a mystery that the law allows evidence from people of obvious ill character with something to gain from their testimony to be presented in court. Clearly it’s a case of prosecutors wanting to notch up convictions as it makes them look more efficient, even if the convictions are subsequently overturned. Paredes has now spent more than half his life in jail.

These facts always strike a huge chord with me: that a person who is, or might be, innocent has spent most of their life, or more than my whole life, in prison. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been unable to get Lynn Gilderdale out of my head for the past six weeks and why she’s been turning up time and again on this site. Fifteen or twenty years may not seem like a long time to someone who is middle-aged, but to a teenager it’s more than their whole lifetime so far, or longer than as much of their lives as they can remember; it’s a hardly conceivable time frame. I think back to the time just after I left boarding school, riding up into the hills to college, discovering new music I liked and eyeing up girls (though in the event, I never actually had a girlfriend) and then remember that both Lynn and Efren were spending much or all of their time confined to small rooms, Efren was trapped in a building pretty much devoid of female company except for the occasional visit, and Lynn, who had not been to school since the second day of her illness in late 1991, could not tolerate the music (even if Tori Amos, Richard Thompson and the Indigo Girls had been to her taste), and that much the same state of affairs persisted for 14 years afterwards for Lynn and to this day for Efren.

Nowadays, prison sentences that long are presented as if they were mere slaps on the wrist and we hear demands for mandatory jail sentences of several years for merely carrying a weapon. There are organisations fighting to get people off Death Row and to get rid of the death penalty in the USA generally, but the issue of innocent people serving life sentences when they are innocent does not have quite the same urgency, for obvious reasons. While I do accept that people sometimes have to be confined for long periods, sometimes their whole life, it is clear that hysteria, prejudice and a vested interest in getting heads on plates leads to a lot of innocent people, particularly but not just men, ending up spending their entire youth in prison. It’s not just tragic; it’s heinous.

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