Woodfox: Searches made him feel 'helpless, hopeless'

Albert Woodfox, serving life in prison for the 1972 murder of a security officer at Angola, told a federal judge Wednesday in Baton Rouge that multiple, daily strip searches and visual body cavity inspections leave him “helpless, hopeless.”

Woodfox, 66, is a maximum-security prisoner at the David Wade Correctional Center near Homer in Claiborne Parish. He is the last of the so-called Angola Three remaining in prison.

Woodfox seeks a court ruling that would end such searches as routine prison policy any time he is removed from his cell block for outdoor exercise, visits to the infirmary, visits from friends or family and discussions with his attorneys.

U.S. District Judge James J. Brady earlier dismissed Woodfox’s second jury conviction for murder of 23-year-old Security Officer Brent Miller at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Woodfox remains in prison while Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell pursues reversal of Brady’s ruling at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Until May, Woodfox said, he had not been routinely and daily strip-searched and cavity-inspected since he won a 1978 court ruling against such treatment except in certain potentially dangerous situations.

During questioning Wednesday by one of his attorneys, Sheridan England, Woodfox said such searches occur “not as a matter of security, but as a matter of procedure.”

Woodfox’s request for an injunction against such routine searches is part of a lawsuit he and two former inmates have pursued for 13 years.

In that lawsuit, Woodfox is seeking damages for more than 41 years under 23-hour-per-day lockdown in single-inmate cells.

Of the strip searches and cavity inspections, Woodfox told Sheridan and Brady: “It’s humiliating and stressful.”

Baton Rouge attorney Richard A. Curry, representing prison officials sued by Woodfox, argued the strip searches are necessary in maximum-security facilities where contraband has been seized in increasing amounts for more than a year.

That contraband at Wade, Curry said, included drugs and at least one potential weapon that featured a razor blade.

Curry said Woodfox was incarcerated at Angola for decades after Miller’s murder.

“Weren’t you once found guilty of having a handcuff key in your possession?” Curry asked Woodfox.

When Woodfox said that was not true, Curry showed him a record of a disciplinary order issued at Angola after a handcuff key was found in Woodfox’s cell.

Woodfox said the key was placed in his cell by someone else five years after the stabbing death of Miller.

“Officer Miller had been killed,” Woodfox repeated, noting many Angola officers “still hated us.”

“You were never found innocent of this charge,” Curry said.

Woodfox countered someone in prison administration decided not to enforce the disciplinary order against him for the discovery of the handcuff key.

Woodfox added no contraband of any sort has been seized from him or found in his cell at Wade Correctional Center.

Wade Warden Jerry Goodwin confirmed Woodfox has not been found with contraband or written up for policy infractions at that prison.

Goodwin added visual inspection of body cavities is required each time a maximum security prisoner is taken from his cell block and each time that inmate is returned to his cell block.

Goodwin said that is a policy that safeguards security officers, other inmates and prison doctors and nurses.

Narcotics, marijuana, cash, tobacco, lighters and weapons, including a homemade knife and other sharp-edged objects, have been confiscated during such searches, Goodwin said.

“We haven’t found any explosives yet,” Goodwin said.

Prison consultant Patrick Keohane, a former 30-year employee and warden for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, testified regular strip searches and visual cavity inspections can reduce violence at maximum security facilities.

Keohane noted that two officers at a federal prison in Marion, Ill., were murdered by inmates who were discovered to have a handcuff key.

“I had to go into Marion on the day (those) two officers were killed,” Keohane said.

Also seeking damages because of the state’s lockdown policy are former Angola Three inmate Robert King Wilkerson and the estate of Angola Three inmate Herman J. Wallace, who died in October at age 71, just three days after his release from a St. Gabriel prison.

Wallace was convicted for Miller’s murder and spent more than 41 years under lockdown. Wallace’s conviction was voided by Chief U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson because women were unconstitutionally excluded from the West Feliciana Parish grand jury that indicted Wallace in 1973. He was reindicted two days after his release and died of cancer a day later.

Wilkerson, 69, who now goes by the name of Robert King, was released from Angola in 2001 after serving 29 years in lockdown. During their daily one-hour release from lockdown, such prisoners are not allowed to mingle with the general prison population, according to King’s attorneys.

Wilkerson was convicted for the murder of another inmate, but prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony against him. He was released immediately in return for his guilty plea to the reduced charge of conspiracy to commit murder.

The judge took Wednesday’s evidence and testimony under advisement.