[Ppnews] Torture at a Louisiana Prison

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 27 12:28:12 EST 2009


January 27, 2009

What About Closing Angola, Mr. Obama?

Torture at a Louisiana Prison


The torture of prisoners in US custody is not 
only found in military prisons in Iraq, 
Afghanistan and Guantanamo. If President Obama is 
serious about ending US support for torture, he can start here in Louisiana.

The 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 over 
36 years. Now a death penalty trial in St. 
Francisville, Louisiana 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, twenty-five inmates 
testified last summer to facing overwhelming 
violence in the aftermath of an escape attempt at 
the prison nearly a decade ago. These twenty-five 
inmates - who were not involved in the escape 
attempt - 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 beaten 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. The inmates will have to 
spend that money behind bars –more than 90% of 
Angola's prisoners are expected to die behind its walls.

Systemic Violence

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. Mathis is represented by 
civil rights attorneys Jim Boren (who also 
represented one of the Jena Six youths) and 
Rachel Connor, with assistance from Nola 
Investigates, an investigative firm in New 
Orleans that specializes in defense for capital cases.

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. 20th Judicial District Judge George 
H. Ware Jr. ruled that the documented torture and 
abuse was not relevant. However, the behavior 
documented in the hearing not only raises strong 
doubts about the cases against the Angola Five, 
but it also shows that violence against inmates 
has become standard procedure at the prison.

The hearing 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 
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 
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."

Solitary Confinement

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 8th 
amendment rights against cruel and unusual 
punishment and 4th 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."

In addition to Cain's comments, Louisiana 
Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell has said 
the case against the Angola Three is personal to 
him. Statements like this indicate that this 
vigilante attitude not only pervades New Orleans' 
criminal justice system, but 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 US. But from the 
abandonment of prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison 
during 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. Most recently, 
journalist A.C. Thompson, in an investigation of 
post-Katrina killings, found evidence that the 
New Orleans police department supported vigilante 
attacks against Black residents of New Orleans after Katrina.

Torture and abuse is illegal under both US law – 
including the constitutional prohibition against 
cruel and unusual punishment - and international 
treaties that the US is signatory to, from the 
1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the 
International Covenant on Civil and Political 
Rights (ratified in 1992). Despite the laws and 
treaties, US prison guards have rarely been held 
accountable to these standards.

Once we say that abuse or torture is ok 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 Guantanamo 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
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 designed 
it 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, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He 
can be reached at <mailto:neworleans at leftturn.org>neworleans at leftturn.org.

Research assistance for this article by Emily Ratner.

Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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