Charges of widespread torture at US state prison.
The Indypendent reports
he Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is already notorious for a
range of offenses, including keeping former Black Panthers Herman
Wallace and Albert Woodfox, in solitary for more than 36 years.
Now a death penalty trial in St. Francisville, La., has exposed
widespread and systemic abuse at the prison. Even in the context of
eight years of the Bush administration, the behavior documented at the
Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola stands out both for its
brutality and for the significant evidence that it was condoned and
encouraged from the very top of the chain of command.
In a remarkable hearing that explored torture practices at Angola,
25 inmates testified last summer to facing overwhelming violence in the
aftermath of an escape attempt at the prison nearly a decade ago. These
25 inmates -- who were not involved in the escape attempt, but were in
the same building -- testified to being kicked, punched, beaten with
batons and with fists, stepped on, left naked in a freezing cell and
threatened that they would be killed. They were threatened by guards
that they would be sexually assaulted with batons. They were forced to
urinate and defecate on themselves. They were bloodied, had teeth
knocked out, were beaten until they lost control of bodily functions,
and abused until they signed statements or confessions presented to
them by prison officials. One inmate had a broken jaw, and another was
placed in solitary confinement for eight years.
While prison officials deny the policy of abuse, the range of
prisoners who gave statements, in addition to medical records and other
evidence introduced at the trial, present a powerful argument that
abuse is a standard policy at the prison. Several of the prisoners
received $7,000 when the state agreed to settle -- without admitting
liability -- two civil rights lawsuits filed by 13 inmates. They will
have to spend that money behind bars -- more than 90 percent of Angola's
prisoners are expected to die behind its walls.
During the attempted escape at Angola, in which one guard was killed
and two were taken hostage, a team of officers -- including Angola
warden Burl Cain -- rushed in and began shooting, killing one inmate,
Joel Durham, and wounding another, David Mathis.
The prison has no official guidelines for what should happen during
escape attempts or other crises, a policy that seems designed to
encourage the violent treatment documented in this case. Richard
Stalder, at that time the secretary of the Louisiana Department of
Public Safety and Corrections, was also at the prison at the time. Yet
despite -- or because of -- the presence of the prison warden and head of
corrections for the state, guards were given free hand to engage in
violent retribution. Cain later told a reporter after the shooting that
Angola's policy was not to negotiate, saying, ''That's a message all
the inmates know. They just forgot it. And now they know it again.''
Five prisoners -- including Mathis -- were charged with murder, and
currently are on trial, facing the death penalty -- partially based on
testimony from other inmates that was obtained through beatings and
torture. The St. Francisville hearing was requested by Mathis' defense
counsel to demonstrate that, in the climate of violence and abuse,
inmates were forced to sign statements through torture, and therefore
those statements should be inadmissible.
The behavior documented in the hearing not only raises strong doubts
about the cases against the prisoners, known as the Angola Five, but it
also shows a pattern of systemic abuse so open and regular, it defies
the traditional excuse of bad apples. Inmate Doyle Billiot testified to
being threatened with death by the guards, "What's not to be afraid of?
Got all these security guards coming around you everyday looking at you
sideways, crazy and stuff. Don't know what's on their mind, especially
when they threaten to kill you." Another inmate, Robert Carley
testified that a false confession was beaten out of him. "I was
afraid," he said. "I felt that if I didn't go in there and tell them
something, I would die."
Inmate Kenneth "Geronimo" Edwards testified that the guards "beat us
half to death." He also testified that guards threatened to sexually
assault him with a baton, saying, "That's a big black ... say you want
it." Later, Edwards says, the guards, "put me in my cell. They took all
my clothes. Took my jumpsuit. Took all the sheets, everything out the
cell, and put me in the cell buck-naked ... It was cold in the cell. They
opened the windows and turned the blowers on." At least a dozen other
inmates also testified to receiving the same beatings, assault, threats
of sexual violence, and "freezing treatment."
Some guards at the prison treated the abuse as a game. Inmate Brian
Johns testified at the hearing that, "One of the guards was hitting us
all in the head. Said he liked the sound of the drums -- the drumming
sound that -- from hitting us in the head with the stick."
Two of Angola's most famous residents, political prisoners Herman
Wallace and Albert Woodfox, have become the primary example of another
form of abuse common at Angola -- the use of solitary confinement as
punishment for political views. The two have now each spent more than
36 years in solitary, despite the fact that a judge recently overturned
Woodfox's conviction -- prison authorities continue to hold Woodfox and
have announced plans to retry him. Woodfox and Wallace -- who together
with former prisoner King Wilkerson are known as the Angola Three --
have filed a civil suit against Angola, arguing that their confinement
has violated both their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and
unusual punishment and Fourth Amendment right to due process.
Recent statements by Angola Warden Burl Cain makes clear that
Woodfox and Wallace are being punished for their political views. At a
recent deposition, attorneys for Woodfox asked Cain, "Lets just for the
sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the
murder of Brent Miller." Cain responded, "Okay. I would still keep him
in (solitary) ... I still know that he is still trying to practice Black
Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison
because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all
kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks
chasing after them ... He has to stay in a cell while he's at Angola."
Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell has said the case
against the Angola Three is "personal" to him. The testimony presented
at the Angola Five trial indicates that this vigilante attitude
pervades New Orleans' criminal justice system, and Caldwell and Cain's
comments show that the problem comes from the very top.
The problem is not limited to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola
-- similar stories can be found in prisons across the United States. But
from the abandonment of prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison during
Hurricane Katrina to the case of the Jena Six, Louisiana's criminal
justice system, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world,
often seems to be functioning under plantation-style justice.
Once we say that abuse or torture is an acceptable practice to use
against prisoners, the next step is for it to be used in the wider
population. A recent petition for administrative remedies filed by
Herman Wallace states, "If Guantánamo Bay has been a national
embarrassment and symbol of the U.S. government's relation to charges,
trials and torture, then what is being done to the Angola 3 ... is what
we are to expect if we fail to act quickly ... The government tries out
it's torture techniques on prisoners in the U.S. -- just far enough to
see how society will react. It doesn't take long before they unleash
their techniques on society as a whole." If we don't stand up against
this abuse now, it will only spread.
Despite the hearings, civil suits and other documentation, the
guards who performed the acts documented in the hearing on torture at
Angola remain unpunished, and the system that empowered them remains in
place. In fact, many of the guards have been promoted, and remain in
supervisory capacity over the same inmates they were documented to have
beaten mercilessly. Warden Burl Cain still oversees Angola. Meanwhile,
the trial of the Angola Five is moving forward, and those with the
power to change the pattern of abuse at Angola remain silent.
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans. This article was originally published at southernstudies.org. Research assistance for this article was provided by Emily Ratner.