Albert Woodfox was born six weeks after me. We were both poor. We were both smart. That is where the similarities ended. From then on, you don’t have to be a physicist to know that we lived in parallel universes.
The injustice that he lived through is so brutal that many people won’t believe it. Lying witnesses, cops, prison officials, prosecutors, judges, and politicians were de rigueur. No semblance of due process, the Rule of Law or justice existed in his world: not on the street, not in school, not in jail, not in prison, and not in court.
The horror of the prison called Angola is all you have heard and worse. Angola is where most of the inmates came from after slavery was replaced with “prison labor” where inmates were sold to corporations and plantations. The cruel and violent guards and officials said more about their humanity, or lack of it, than his. He was tortured. He was framed. I don’t know how he came out sane. The Black Panther ideology long destroyed by the FBI helped him endure. Angola is still a horror in spite of dozens of lawsuits and decades of oversight by the federal government.
The opening quote in the book (Solitary: Unbroken by four decades in solitary confinement. My story of transformation and hope.Albert Woodfox with Leslie George, Grove Press, NY, 2019) stopped me dead in my tracks: It has been my experience that because of institutional and individual racism, African Americans are born socially dead and spend the rest of their lives fighting to live.
It took an international public movement and many lawyers hundreds of hours to finally obtain his freedom in 2016 but they had to fight other lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and politicians who kept on lying up to the present day. Two other political prisoners, Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal, remain in prison for crimes they did not commit and because, as Woodfox says, your life is the revolution. The recent release of the movie about the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago in 1969 (Judas and the Black Messiah) and the documentary about the bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia in 1985 reminds us this is not over. Philadelphia was only the second time in America that we bombed ourselves and both times it was a Black community. The other was Black Wall Street in Greenwood, OK outside of Tulsa in 1921.
The parallel universe of Woodfox and other Blacks in America hasn’t improved much since Woodfox was first imprisoned. Shootings of unarmed Black men by law enforcement went up in 2020 in spite of all the BLM protests and still law enforcement has no accountability. Phoenix City Council tried to murder the just born accountability and transparency board after 40 years of community fighting to get it.
The response of the Arizona state legislature has been to attempt to increase criminal penalties if the victim or target allegedly is law enforcement (SCR1030, SB 1125, HB2309); to prohibit municipalities and counties from reducing law enforcement budgets in opposition to “abolish the police” (SB1333, HB2310, HB2420); to shield law enforcement from transparency and accountability (HB2152, HB2295, HB2550, HB2553, HB2567); and to prohibit any official from giving a “stand down” order (HCR2032). Bills were introduced as well to target BLM for leading the protests against law enforcement violence (HB2485, HB2715).
Of the few positive bills that have been introduced, the legislature has agreed to fund body cameras (HB2461). Unfortunately the research shows that body cameras do not stop the violence but do protect the officers. Two bills were introduced to mandate reporting the use of force (HB2168, HB2190) and one passed the House (HB2168). The bill to create an oversight committee for the Department of Corrections (DOC), sorely needed, also passed the House (HB2167).
The Department of Corrections (DOC) in Arizona is a horror like Angola and has been for decades. They just received a second million dollar plus fine from the federal court for the refusal to comply with the settlement in Parsons v. Ryanregarding the provision of humane medical care. This is all the more important in the age of COVID but the prisons response to the COVID crisis has been atrocious. The guards are not required to be tested or wear masks. The inmates have insufficient supplies, even soap, to wash hands and often no hot water. Contrary to guidelines, they moved the inmates around from prison to prison and section to section thus aiding spread. Even if a person had a fever, a cough, or flu like symptoms – it doesn’t matter. Medical care does not exist. Many inmates won’t report any symptoms because they are then put into solitary without treatment.
The mistreatment of women inmates by Arizona DOC is legendary. A few years ago, bills were introduced in the legislature to mandate that women prisoners be given sanitary supplies and toilet paper. Any woman knows we need sanitary supplies and any human knows we need toilet paper. Women were denied these essentials. If the woman needed more than the daily maximum, she had to show the used pad or tampon to an officer, often male, and beg for a new one. If the women bled on their prison issue clothes, they were given a disciplinary writeup. This is the kind of cruelty common in Arizona prisons.
To avoid having a law passed regarding the sanitary products, the DOC agreed to put a rule into their prison rule book mandating the supplies. They put the rule in and then failed to enforce it, like many other rules. The most recent iteration of this sadistic saga is that guards are refusing to give the women sheets or towels saying they have no money for that because they have to provide feminine hygiene products free. When we complain to the higher ups, they say that is not true. We know it’s not true; but the guards keep doing it anyhow.
The most recent of the thousand cuts is that the prison has now stopped putting trashcan liners in the trashcans so that the women whose job is to empty them have to do it not only without gloves (which are not available – got to buy tampons) but without a trash can liner as well. This is a biohazard especially in the time of COVID. No response has yet been made to that complaint except to say inmates lie.
Another example of deliberate cruelty was after the recent escape of men from Florence they introduced increased levels of custody that severely impacted the women’s prisons that don’t have “day rooms.” When the women complained, we were told it was just temporary for a few days while they re-evaluated security. But the guards did not tell the women that. In fact they told them the opposite. This “lying” or “omission” is common. E.g. DOC admitted that they changed the rule a few years ago that those in AA can consort with their AA sponsor after leaving prison even if the sponsor has a felony. But they never told the inmates that. For the second year in a row, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was introduced into the state legislature. This year it passed the House (HB2261).
Surely, we all remember the prison door lock scandal when a video released by a whistleblower showed how prisoners could simply unlock the doors and walk out of their cells because year after year, though the prison was allocated money to fix the locks, they didn’t. Thus they put guards and other prisoners at risk. Then Shinn whined that he didn’t have money for food because he had to fix the locks! The recent escape from the state prison in Florence shows the gross inadequacy of our prison security. Yet rather than deal with the issue, the legislature introduced a bill to increase the penalty for escape from a felony 4 to a felony 2 (HB2790). The whistleblower later turned up dead in her own house.
Another example of AZ perfidy is that Arizona has long had an “escape” fund in statute to ensure that if a prisoner escapes from a for-profit prison, the for-profit prison has to pay for the re-capture not the taxpayers. In spite of the fact that the escape from Kingman a few years ago was from a for-profit prison and the state spent much money tracking the men down, recapturing them, and then putting them on trial after they had killed two more people, the for-profit prison that let them escape did not pay into the fund. I did a public records request afterward and the records custodian was shocked that the statute even existed and said it had never been used. It has since been changed and now requires a $10,000 payment for escaped prisoners. A.R.S. §41-1830.31.
KJZZ released a story on February 23rd about several whistleblowers who divulged that though a statute passed in 2019 requires a transition program where inmates within 90 days of their release could be prepared and get out early, the department two years later cannot properly calculate the time of release. Because DOC was refusing to use the program, year after year bills were introduced to mandate use. They failed. This year, two bills passed: SB1067 in the Senate calling for 3,500 to be put into the program and HB2163 in the House to likewise mandate 3,500. Rather than release those 3,500 prisoners, DOC has asked for money to contract with yet another for-profit prison for what they claim will be an excess 2,700 people in 2022. The last I looked, 2,700 minus 3,500 leaves 800 empty beds. But since some state attorney (who desperately needs a new job) negotiated a contract with the for-profit prisons saying we would keep their cash producing beds full, DOC needs bodies. Guess whose? Time and time again – follow the money.
Please take action on the bills noted above. Contact Governor Ducey and tell him we want no more for-profit prisons, especially ones that the state taxpayers guarantee to keep full no matter the cost or crime rate. Tell him to fire Director of Corrections Shinn who has become invisible. The last two directors, Stewart and Ryan, were involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal. We had really hoped for better. It’s inconceivable that Shinn could be worse, but he’s working very hard at it.