Albert Woodfox, the last Angola 3 member behind bars, took the stand in federal court Wednesday to argue that the daily strip and cavity searches he undergoes in prison violate a previous court agreement entered into 35 years ago.
Jerry Goodwin, the warden at David Wade Correctional Center, where Woodfox is imprisoned, testified to U.S. District Court Judge James J. Brady that it is the prison’s policy to perform “visual body cavity searches” every time a maximum security inmate enters or leaves his tier.
A “visual body cavity search” involves the removal of all clothing, inspection of that clothing by guards and examination of the inmates mouth, genitals, buttocks and soles for contraband or weapons.
Woodfox, who is serving time for the 1972 murder of a prison guard, and his counsel say the searches violate a 1978 consent decree entered into by the former Angola inmate and then-U.S. District Court Judge Daniel W. LeBlanc. The decree ruled these searches violated the rights of inmates and must be curtailed and, in many cases, eliminated.
They also say the searches were not a policy carried out at David Wade until March of this year, when Judge LeBlanc died.
During testimony Wednesday, Goodwin, the warden, said the searches are undertaken “for public safety, staff safety and offender safety” and are meant primarily to uncover contraband or weapons hidden on the inmate’s person.
Sheridan England, a member of Woodfox’s legal team, asked Goodwin why his client should undergo the searches, since he remains shackled and under constant watch by at least two guards during his time off the tier.
Goodwin replied, saying inmates aren’t continuously watched while they are in their cells. Without these searches, inmates could smuggle contraband, or even weapons, from their cells with the intent to break prison rules or even do harm.
“It don’t take but a minute or a second or a jiffy for something to happen,” Goodwin said.
“(Inmates are) never under constant supervision.”
Woodfox is housed on the “closed-cell restriction” tier at the Homer prison, where he is kept in a 6′ x 9′ cell for at least 23 hours a day. Goodwin confirmed during testimony that the 71-year-old inmate hasn’t received a disciplinary report since he was transferred to David Wade more than three years ago, on Nov. 1, 2010.
Testimony lasted all day Wednesday. In addition to Woodfox and Goodwin, David Wade guard Matthew Elmore and Pat Keohane, an expert for the state, also testified. At the end of the day, Judge Brady requested counsel file briefs detailing what would be the effects of adopting the 1978 consent decree approved under Judge LeBlanc.
Counsel for the plaintiff was given 30 days to complete the first brief, after which counsel for the defense was given 30 days to draft a response. Judge Brady will then issue a ruling.
England, speaking after the hearing wrapped, said he was confident the judge would rule in his client’s favor: “I’m happy Mr. Woodfox got an opportunity to talk about the deplorable strip searches he’s made to undergo everyday. We’re confident the court will find they violate the law.”
Woodfox’s plea for the court to halt the strip and cavity searches is part of a much larger civil case filed against the state in 2000.
In that suit, Woodfox, along with fellow Angola 3 members Robert King (formerly Wilkerson) and Herman Wallace, said the decades spent in solitary confinement, or lockdown, violates the 8th Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment.
They requested an injunction from the court to remove them from CCR and place them back in the general prison population, and also requested they be paid punitive damages as well as attorney’s and court fees.
At the time of the 2000 filing, all three were being held at the State Penitentiary also known as Angola, or “The Farm.” The three met there in the early 1970s while serving sentences for robbery, and were instrumental in forming the prison’s first Black Panther chapter.
But soon after their arrival, Woodfox and Wallace were implicated in the brutal stabbing murder of Angola guard Brent Miller. King, who arrived after the murder but became active in the Black Panther movement in the prison, was later charged with the murder of a fellow inmate.
All three were placed in solitary confinement. They maintained their innocence in the murders, saying prison officials sought to hide them away due to their involvement with the Black Panthers.
King remained in solitary for 29 years, until 2001 when he was released after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. Wallace remained under lockdown until Oct. 1 of this year, when he was released on order from U.S. District Court Judge Brian A. Jackson.
He died four days later from advanced liver cancer. Woodfox is the only remaining Angola 3 member behind bars and has been living in lockdown for nearly 42 years. Soon after Wallace’s death, the United Nations special investigators on torture said the extended lockdown experienced by the Angola 3 “clearly amounts to torture and it should be lifted immediately.”
The trial for the suit filed in 2000 is set to begin June 2, 2013 in the Middle District Court in Baton Rouge.