Robert King says he watched nearly three decades of his life fade away in solitary confinement inside Louisiana’s Angola prison, sometimes glimpsing the world through a small window and longing for the few hours a week he might feel the sun on his face.
Mr King is one of three men known as the “Angola Three,” who supporters say spent decades in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, often referred to simply as Angola, the town where it is located.
“We were caged up,” said Mr King, who was released in 2001 after a court reversed his conviction in the death of a fellow inmate in 1973. “I don’t think a person can go through that and come up unscathed.”
Another man, Herman Wallace, was released in October 2013 when a judge granted him a new trial and died days later.
Now, Mr King is closely watching the fate of the last of the three, Albert Woodfox, after a judge this week ordered his immediate release and barred the state from trying him a third time in the killing of a prison guard in 1972.
The attorney general is fighting that ruling and won an emergency stay keeping him in jail while the two sides argue the matter before an appeals court.
In court filings on Wednesday, Mr Woodfox’s lawyers argued that he does not pose a flight risk if released, needs medical attention and would submit to electronic surveillance if released.
The lawyers also argued that prosecutors’ claims that Mr Woodfox was dangerous were “starkly untrue”.
State officials have said repeatedly that the evidence shows he is a killer. They said Mr Woodfox has been in a form of protective custody called closed cell restriction, but not solitary confinement. He is allowed to watch television through the bars of his cell, talk to other inmates in his tier, read books, talk to visiting chaplains and leave his cell every day for an hour.
“The perception of ‘solitary confinement’ is a far cry from the reality,” said a spokesman for the attorney general’s office.
For now, Mr Woodfox is being held in a jail where he has awaited his new trial since February. His supporters estimate he has spent a total of more than four decades in isolation, with some breaks in the 1990s and in 2008.
It’s a situation Mr King knows well.
Mr King said he was shackled at the hands and feet anytime he left his cell. He said he could see and converse with a handful of other inmates in the immediate vicinity, but they all had to be careful not to talk too loud, or too much.
What has made the case of the Angola Three and Mr Woodfox in particular such a lightning rod for international attention has been the length of time they were in isolation.
Tory Pegram of the International Coalition to Free the Angola Three said Mr Woodfox was first put in solitary in April 1972, the same day the guard he was eventually accused of killing died.