The Work

July 12, 2010 6:41 PM

Pro Bono 2010: Solitary Men

Posted by Victor Li

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne got two months in solitary confinement for defying the warden. For three inmates in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as "Angola"), two months in solitary is nothing.

At Angola, Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert Hillary King were on 23-hour-a-day lockdown with one hour a day outside their 6-by-9-foot cells for shower and exercise for about 30 years.

The Angola Three, as they've been nicknamed, were sent to solitary confinement after Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of the murder of an Angola prison guard in 1972, and King was convicted of killing another inmate in 1973. King was released in 2001 after his conviction was overturned, and he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge so that he could be released on the basis of time served.

Wallace and Woodfox both appealed their convictions, and Woodfox won habeas relief in September 2008 while Wallace's petition has yet to be heard by the court. However, the state decided to appeal the Woodfox case, and arguments were held in March 2009. The panel has yet to rule, so both Woodfox and Wallace remain in solitary (Wallace has been moved to another facility).

According to George Kendall, a litigation counsel at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey who represents the trio pro bono, "All three were Black Panthers back when there was great paranoia regarding what the party stood for."

The state of Louisiana, for its part, maintains that the inmates were kept in extended lockdown because they "presented a serious threat to the safety of the staff, other inmates, the general public, and a threat to the safety, security, and good order of the facility."

Furthermore, the government claims that the Angola Three's Eighth Amendment rights were not violated because "extended lockdown can never form the basis of an Eighth Amendment violation, absent deprivation of a basic human need such as 'adequate food, sleep, clothing, shelter or medical attention,' and that the inmates must prove “that they were denied life’s necessities resulting in a substantial risk of serious harm."

Not so, says Lawrence Wojcik, a litigation partner at DLA Piper's Chicago office who is representing all of the inmates at Tamms Correctional Center, a Supermax prison in southern Illinois, in a class action lawsuit. Wojcik, who is waiting for a decision from U.S. district court judge Patrick Murphy, believes that psychological scars as a result of this type of indefinite isolation can manifest themselves physically. "We offered a psychologist who had studied the effects of long-term solitary confinement and said that it often causes ruts in the brain," Wojcik says. To Kendall, however, the central theme in his case is that while solitary confinement can be justified in some instances, it has to be based on current circumstances, not what happened many decades ago. "Take Barry Mills--the head of the Aryan prison gang who was ordering murders even while behind bars. He's in lockdown, and I'm not going to say that he deserves to be back in the general population," says Kendall. "However, if you look at Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson, two people who committed far more serious crimes than my clients, they are not in lockdown. The institution is better off if each inmate is in the least restrictive circumstance."

Wojcik goes further, arguing that round-the-clock lockdown is only supposed to be temporary in nature. "Tamms was originally recommended as a 'time out' [facility]. The hope was that inmates would be sent to Tamms for a few months when they misbehaved, and they would come back and warn everyone else of the harsh conditions. It wasn't meant to be permanent," says Wojcik, comparing the Supermax facility to the boogeyman that inhabits children's closets.

Kendall is hopeful that his clients will eventually be released from prison; however, the silence from the appellate court is loud. "We worry every day about a lot of things," said Kendall. "The good news is that [the court is] looking at it seriously."


Squire Sanders ranked eighty-seventh on this year's Pro Bono Report. Firm lawyers performed an average of 51.4 pro bono hours in 2009; 40.2% of the firm's U.S.-based lawyers contributed 20 or more hours.

CLICK HERE to access the Pro Bono Report 2010 from the July/August issue of The American Lawyer.

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