Forty years in solitary confinement and counting

By Tim Franks Radio 4, Crossing Continents
April 4, 2012
From: BBC Radio 4

As two men in Louisiana complete 40 years in solitary confinement this month, the use of total isolation in US prisons is on the rise. What does this do to a prisoner’s state of mind?

Robert King paces the front room of his small, one-storey house in Austin, Texas.

“I imagine I could put my cell inside this room about six times,” he says. “Probably more.”

For 29 years Robert King occupied a cell nine feet by six – just under three metres by two – for at least 23 hours a day.

He spent most of his time incarcerated in one of the toughest prisons in the United States – Louisiana State Penitentiary.

The prison, the largest in the US, is nicknamed Angola after the plantation that once stood on its site, worked by slaves shipped in from Africa. King, who was released from prison in 2001, still calls himself one of the Angola Three – three men who have been the focus of a long-running international justice campaign.

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It’s impossible to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking”

Robert King Angola Three

Between them, they have served more than 100 years in solitary. All three say they were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, and where convictions were only obtained after blatant mistrials.

King has the open face, lean physique and broad chest of a man in good shape, even on the cusp of his 70th birthday.

And he is reluctant to delve too deeply into what those years in solitary were like, beyond saying that “it’s impossible to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking”.

There is, he says, a physical toll to long-term isolation: “People become old and infirm before their time.”

But more, there is a psychological effect. He stayed strong, he says, but it was “scary” to see how others crumpled through lack of human contact.
Robert King Robert King spent nearly three decades in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary

Angola in the 1960s and 1970s was a place known for its brutal forced labour, its sexual slavery and its violence. Even so, Robert King is on record as saying that solitary was much, much worse.

His reticence is not matched by Nick Trenticosta, the lawyer for the other two members of the Angola Three – Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox.

“I have interviewed a number of of people who’ve spent 10-12 years in solitary confinement,” says Mr Trenticosta, in his basement legal offices in New Orleans.

“Almost all of the people are severely damaged. They’re potted plants. Their will to live really doesn’t exist any more.

“They become shells of their former selves. If I take them to the visitors’ area, it’ll be two hours before I can get an answer to my questions, and then I might just hear gobbledygook.”

Back in the early 1970s, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were already in Angola, serving time for armed robbery.

They became involved in the Black Panther Party – they say in order to try to improve the abysmal conditions for prisoners. Then in 1972, a prison guard called Brent Miller was murdered.

Wallace and Woodfox were convicted, and placed in solitary – where, apart from a short spell in 2008 in a high security dormitory, they have remained ever since.

Both men have always maintained their innocence – saying that grave questions were raised about an inmate being secretly rewarded for his incriminating testimony, and pointing to the lack of forensic evidence linking them to the murder.

Wallace’s sister Vicky lives on the poor side of New Orleans, in the lower ninth ward. Her health has, she says, suffered from the constant worry about her brother – and he is not in good shape either.

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Listen to the full report on Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 5 April at 11:00 BST and on Assignment on the BBC World Service

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