August 31, 2007

LA: Federal Magistrate Finds 30 Segregation of Angola 3 Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Magistrate finds lock down for Angola 3 cruel
Inmates kept in isolation for 30 years

Advocate staff writer, Baton Rouge
Published: Aug 28, 2007

A federal magistrate has found once again that three inmates who remained in lockdown at Louisiana State Penitentiary for more than three decades could be victims of cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S Magistrate Docia Dalby for a second time refused to recommend throwing out a lawsuit filed by two inmates and a former inmate known as the Angola 3.

She made a similar finding in 2005, and that ruling continues forward after it was adopted by a judge.

In a 50-page report earlier this month, Dalby concluded that prison authorities should have known that “being housed in isolation in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day for over three decades results in serious deprivations of basic human needs.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph Tyson will look to Dalby’s findings in making a ruling on whether the case will continue toward trial.

The report comes in a 7-year-old case brought by former imprisoned Black Panther Party activist Robert King Wilkerson and still-imprisoned activists Herman “Hooks” Wallace and Albert Woodfox. The trio insist they have been political prisoners at Angola because they have been continuously confined in the lockdown unit for decades.

Wilkerson was freed in 2001 after his 1973 conviction of murdering a fellow inmate was overturned and he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder. Woodfox and Wallace are serving life sentences after being convicted in the 1972 slaying of Angola correctional officer Brent Miller during a riot.

All three were put in the lockdown unit in 1972. Woodfox and Wallace remain there.

Inmates in the unit get one hour a day to shower and walk alone along the tier on which his cell is located. Three times a week, the inmates can choose to spend that time exercising alone in a fenced yard, if weather permits. There are restrictions on personal property, reading materials, access to legal resources, work and visitation rights.

Prison authorities contend the three posed a serious security risk. But the Angola 3 have argued they haven’t been in trouble in decades. They blame their extended confinement in the lockdown unit for numerous health ailments, including diabetes, hypertension and insomnia.

In her report, Dalby noted lockdown conditions themselves may pass constitutional scrutiny if imposed for a short period of time, but not for three decades.

“With each passing day its effects are exponentially increased, just as surely as a single drop of water repeated endlessly will eventually bore through the hardest of stones,” Dalby writes. “By 1999, these plaintiffs had been in extended lockdown more than anyone in Angola’s history, and more than any other living prisoner in the entire United States, according to plaintiffs’ evidence.”

Dalby also concluded that it appears prison authorities had no legitimate reason for keeping the men isolated for such a long period.

“These men, now in their 60s, do not, and have not for some time, presented a threat to the ‘safety, security and good order of the facility,’” Dalby writes.

She notes that officials cite only the “original reason for lockdown” as the reason the three inmates remained — even though the prison changed its own policy in 1996 to eliminate that as justification for prolonged confinement.

The magistrate suggests a jury could find prison authorities were deliberately indifferent to the plight of the men. However, she recommends dismissing Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder from the case.

“A reasonable official at (the prison) would have realized in 1999 that an inmate’s being held in extended lockdown for 27 years constitutes a sufficiently serious deprivation of basic human needs to trigger the protections of the Eighth Amendment,” Dalby writes.

“Not only (have the courts) consistently noted the severity and terrible deprivation associated with such confinement, it has long been the subject of research, and even of television and movies,” she writes. “It is also a matter of common sense that three decades of extreme isolation and enforced inactivity in a space smaller than a typical walk-in closet present the antithesis of what is necessary to meet basic human needs.”

Lawyers on both sides of the case have yet to respond to Dalby’s recommendations. Tyson will make a final ruling after considering their pleadings.

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