Friday, October 4, 2013

Voiceless for Decades

     Justice denied is one of the worst violations of human rights that can befall an individual. The silence, the voicelessness, the helplessness wrought by unfairly prosecuting someone can completely devastate his life and those around him.
     Such was the story of Herman Wallace, a 71-year-old man who spent more than four decades in solitary confinement for a crime he never even committed. As I stumbled upon his article at the beginning of the week, I already knew I wanted to focus my next blog post on his story and the trials and tribulations he faced. However, much to my horror and sadness, I discovered that he passed away early today morning. This highlighted the importance of giving light to this crucial issue, which often goes tucked away beneath the annals of history, simply disregarded as an occurrence of the past.
     In 1974, Mr. Wallace was convicted of the murder of a prison guard by an all white, male jury. No DNA evidence was ever discovered linking him to the murder, not even the knife and bloody fingerprints found at the scene of the crime. Finally, the primary witness on trial was later discovered to have been bought by the state in return for favors and a pardon. However, despite the striking lack of evidence, the decision to keep Mr. Wallace imprisoned was considered and reaffirmed on more than 160 occasions.
     What is perhaps more deplorable than the blatantly unjust trial Mr. Wallace was subjected to is the fact that his entire 41 years in prison were spent in solitary confinement. He was locked in a two meter by three meter cell for 23 hours a day, only given one hour each day for showering and solitary recreation. This cruel and inhumane treatment is in direct violation of international law. Furthermore, prison authorities had no reason to keep him in solitary confinement at all, let alone for four decades, as he he never committed any serious disciplinary infractions nor did he pose a threat to himself or others.
     Mr. Wallace has always maintained his innocence and believes that he was unfairly implicated due to his political activism in prison as a member of the Black Panther Party. However, he a fellow member, also convicted for the same case, strove to unite all prisoners to fight against the sexual abuse and violence that was rampant in the prison at the time.
     When he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in June, he was still receiving substandard medical care and had endured years of detrimental physical and mental conditions. Though he was released on Tuesday, not without a fight by the state of Louisiana, Mr. Wallace was so weakened that he was taken away in an ambulance and remained in the hospital until his death on Friday morning.
     Let this serve as a lesson for all of us. As basic human rights recognized across the globe, the infringement of the right to a fair and just trial and the degradation and inhumane treatment of prisoners should not be tolerated. It is our responsibility to ensure these human rights are being protected because all to often, as unfortunately was the case of Herman Wallace, prisoners are suddenly found voiceless and helpless in their own defense.

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