Lawyers for a Louisiana prison inmate whose conviction in the 1972 death of a guard was overturned say he has been subjected to illegal “body cavity searches” while he awaits the next step in his prosecution.
The inmate is Albert Woodfox, 67, one of the Louisiana prisoners supporters have dubbed the “Angola Three,” owing to their long stretches in solitary confinement at the state penitentiary in Angola.
State officials say the searches are necessary to maintain security and that Woodfox is not treated any differently than other maximum security prisoners.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday on the body search issue but the three-judge panel gave no indication when it would rule. A decision is pending from the same appeals court on state efforts to re-instate Woodfox’s murder conviction.
Woodfox is currently being held at Louisiana’s Wade Correctional Center. His conviction in the guard’s stabbing death was overturned last year by U.S. District Judge James Brady, in a ruling citing the racial makeup of the grand jury that indicted him in 1993.
The 5th Circuit heard arguments in January on the state’s move to re-instate the conviction.
Meanwhile, Woodfox’s lawyers say, Wade officials have begun carrying out cavity searches up to six times a day, despite his being in isolation most of the time. They said the searches were done whenever he was moved within the prison system from one area to another for limited exercise periods, lawyer visits or medical treatment, always under heavy security.
Earlier this year, Brady issued an injunction blocking the body cavity searches of Woodfox unless there is reasonable suspicion that he is hiding contraband, and with requirements that include prior written approval from a warden.
The state is appealing that ruling. Among their arguments is that Woodfox remains a maximum security inmate, subject to the same searches as other such inmates. Arguing for the state Wednesday, attorney Richard Curry noted that Woodfox is charged with killing a guard using a contraband knife.
But arguments Wednesday largely centered on a jurisdictional matter: The state argued that Louisiana has a longstanding policy arising from earlier state court litigation that spells out search policy and that Woodfox should have sought state court relief.
Katherine Kimpel argued that the issue was properly before Brady because it is tied to other federal litigation seeking to end Woodfox’s solitary confinement.
Other members of the Angola Three were Woodfox’s fellow prisoners Robert King and Herman Wallace. Woodfox and Wallace have said they were singled out for harsh treatment, including isolation, because of their political activism.
Wallace, convicted with Woodfox of murder in the death of guard Brent Miller, died last fall only days after a judge freed him and granted him a new trial. King, who was convicted of killing a fellow inmate in 1973, was released in 2001 after his conviction was reversed, and was among dozens of Woodfox supporters at January’s 5th circuit hearing.