THE BLOG

In the Land of the Free

27/11/2014 10:52 | Updated 25 January 2015

News this week that a US Court of Appeals upheld the order for the release of Albert Woodfox who has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement after being convicted of murdering a guard at Angola Prison. A federal judge ruled last year that Mr Woodfox should be released finding that there was racial discrimination at his retrial. It was the third time Mr Woodfox's conviction has been overturned, but prosecutors have issued a series of appeals and Mr Woodfox remains behind bars. Last Thursday's ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the order for Woodfox's release in a unanimous decision. But Democracy Now report that prosecutors could still delay its enforcement with more appeals to keep Woodfox behind bars. "There is no legitimate explanation for this," says Carine Williams, a lawyer for Albert Woodfox with the firm Squire Patton Boggs.

International law is supposed to protect human rights. Put simply; all persons deprived of their liberty should be treated at all times with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. No one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Law enforcement officials should be fully informed and educated and apply international standards for human rights and all persons deprived of their liberty have the right to physical and moral integrity, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health. Prisoners should be to encouraged to achieve personal reformation, re-integration and social rehabilitation to help them lead law-abiding and self-supporting lives after release and to given skills via work, education, religious and cultural activities and involved as much as possible with family and community.

Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were imprisoned in Louisiana for crimes which ordinarily would have seen their release with a fairly standard period of imprisonment. Instead, following the horrific death of a prison officer and later another inmate, all 3 were convicted of murder or conspiracy to murder on unreliable and inconsistent evidence from fellow inmates after little or no investigation, without proper legal representation, before biased juries and in an era of segregation and prejudice. Mr King secured his release with a plea bargain. Mr Wallace is dead and Mr Woodfox is still detained in closed cell restriction clinging to his wit to survive.

There is scant evidence to support the convictions and ample evidence that their treatment was and is inhumanly cruel, held for decades in tiny cells in a Louisiana correctional facility known as Angola and built on a former slave plantation. Since his release, Robert King has campaigned tirelessly and with grace and dignity for the release of his former fellow convicts. All 3 dedicated themselves to the pursuit of justice and black emancipation challenging the system at every turn and surviving isolation and degradation.

In 2010 the movie Land of the Free dealt with the Angola 3. It is a powerful film by Director Vadim Jean which allows us to confront the ease with which serious human abuses can occur and be tolerated and to recognise how easy it is for human beings to get lost in a political and bureaucratic system. Shockingly, it is 4 years since the film was released and Mr Woodfox is still inside. Now 67 years old, he has been held in isolation longer than any prisoner in the United States, for 23 hours a day -- 23 hours and 45 minutes on weekends. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights preamble recognises that "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world".

The Declaration emphasizes the need for "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society. This applies to all people regardless of whether they are law abiding, offenders or prisoners. There are, of course, some rights which are qualified but the basic principle that human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights remains - except apparently in Louisiana.