Tag Archives: Justice

Over 40 Years in “Closed Cell Restricted”: How Albert Woodfox Survived Solitary

Photo by msppmoore CC-BY SA 2.0

When Woodfox was eighteen, he was arrested for robbing a bar and sentenced to fifty years in prison.

Two weeks after Miller’s death, the four men were charged with murder. There was an abundance of physical evidence at the crime scene, none of which linked them to the killing. A bloody fingerprint near Miller’s body did not match any of theirs.

Woodfox often woke up gasping. He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death, a sensation that he began to experience the day after his mother’s funeral, in 1994. He had planned to go to the burial — prisoners at Angola are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family — but at the last minute his request was denied. For three years, he slept sitting up, because he felt less panicked when he was vertical. “It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong,” he told a psychologist. “Someday I’m not going to be able to deal with it. I’m not going to be able to pull those walls apart.”

Woodfox is reserved, humble, and temperamentally averse to drama. When he talked about himself, his tone became flat. He was scheduled to speak at a panel on solitary confinement the next day, and he felt exhausted by the prospect. “I get apprehensive when somebody asks me something I can’t answer, like ‘What does it feel like to be free?’ ” he said. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?” He’d developed a stock answer to the question: “Ask me in twenty years.”

At The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv profiles Albert Woodfox, a man originally sentenced to 50 years in prison for robbery. A member of the Black Panthers and the Angola 3, Woodfox spent over four decades in solitary confinement, despite a stunning lack of evidence against him in a prison murder.

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The Law Is Human and Flawed

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What is lawful is not always identical to what is right. Sometimes it falls to a judge to align the two. Ward’s judgment runs to more than eighty closely typed pages. It is beautifully written, delicate and humane, philosophically astute, ethically sensitive, and scholarly, with a wide range of historical and legal references.

The best of judgments, as I was to discover, are similarly endowed. They form a neglected sub-genre of our literature, read in their entirety by almost no one except law studentsand fellow judges. And in the Family Division particularly, they present a hoard of personal drama and moral complexity. They are on fiction’s terrain, even though they are bound, unlike the fortunate novelist, to a world of real people and must deliver a verdict.

But as we all know, verdicts, indeed the whole system, can also be asininetough, even tragic, for its innocent victims, grimly fascinating for the novelist. For the obvious is true, the law is human and flawed. Just like newspapers or medicine or the internet, it embodies all that is brilliant and awful about humankind.

Ian McEwan, writing in The New Republic about the court cases that inspired his new novel.

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Photo: Law Society of Upper Canada, Flickr