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One man's solitary state of injustice

By Bob Herbert
Published by (New York) Daily News, May 24, 1988

Robert Chambers got slapped on the wrist for killing a young woman in Central Park. He'll be out before very long. In Louisiana, where the criminal justice system has not yet heard of the 20th century, a man named Colonel (yes, that's his first name) Nyati Bolt is caught in the opposite extreme.

A New York lawyer, Andrew Vachss, is trying to get Bolt released from a long, long stretch in the state penitentiary in Angola. But first, he is trying to get him out of solitary confinement. Bolt, 43, has been in solitary for 16 years. He was 27 when he went into the hole. He has already spent more time in solitary than Chambers will spend in prison, even if Chambers serves his maximum term.

No one knows why.

Bolt ended up in Angola because one day, when he was in his mid 20s, he walked into a convenience store, pulled a knife and demanded money. He must have been very inept at this because he only got a few dollars, and he only got a few steps away before he was caught. Also, this was not the first time Bolt had demanded money that was not his. And it was not the first time he had been caught.

Conviction was a foregone conclusion. His sentence: 45 years in the state penitentiary. (For those who have forgotten, Chambers got 5 to 15 years for killing Jennifer Levin.)

In May 1972, there was a riot at Angola and a guard was killed. Prison authorities thought Bolt had something to do with the slaying and placed him in solitary while the investigation proceeded.

It turned out that Bolt had nothing to do with the slaying. The investigation found that two other inmates had killed the guard. They were convicted and sentenced. No evidence was ever found linking Bolt to the crime. But he has never been let out of solitary confinement. And prison officials have no plans to let him out. "It's Kafkaesque," said one lawyer associated with the case. "It's grotesque. There is no justification for keeping the man in there. But they won't let him go."

When you look at the case of Colonel Bolt you have to be very careful. Nothing makes sense. Logic has never been able to penetrate the Louisiana criminal justice system.

So, for example, when you check state documents to find out why Bolt is still in solitary, the documents say, "For the original reason." When you ask the authorities what the original reason was, they reply, "The investigation of the guard's murder."

"Well, it's been proved that he had nothing to do with the murder," said Vachss. "It's crazy. It's insane."

There are other problems. Corruption, for example. A few years ago Vachss actually won a pardon for Bolt from the Louisiana State Board of Pardons. The board's chairman at the time was a guy named Howard Marsellus Jr. The pardon never became official because the governor [Edwin Edwards] refused to sign it. The reason for this was not clear. What is clear is that Marsellus is now in prison himself—for selling pardons.

Probably if Vachss had gone to Louisiana with a trunkful of money, Colonel Bolt would now be sunning himself somewhere and reminiscing about his days in Angola. Instead, Bolt's lawyers kept to the straight and narrow. They sued the state in federal court in Baton Rouge. They wanted Bolt freed from solitary confinement, and they wanted that state to pay damages for keeping him there so long.

In sworn depositions taken before the trial, state officials admitted that there were inmates at Angola who had killed other inmates but still had not been banished to solitary. There were inmates who had tried to escape, but they weren't sent to solitary, either. When asked why Bolt was kept in solitary, the officials responded with gibberish.

The trial was held before a federal magistrate, Stephen C. Riedlinger. He heard the testimony and then prepared a report for a federal judge, who will render a decision. Riedlinger wrote that by the end of 1972, "the original reason" for keeping Bolt in solitary had "ceased to be a valid reason." He also wrote that, while in solitary, Bolt "taught himself to read and write and has remained intellectually alive."

But in a crushing and inexplicable conclusion, Riedlinger recommended that the judge throw out Bolt's lawsuit and with it, apparently, his last hope of getting out of solitary confinement.

So Colonel Nyati Bolt, who is not a violent criminal and who has paid his debt to society, remains in his cell for 23 hours of every day, week after week, year after endless year. He is allowed out only to shower.

Bolt's cell is in the same building as Death Row. The doomed inmates are on the first floor, Bolt is on the second. He can listen to them come and go. In some ways, his punishment is worse than theirs.

The Republican Party, led by Ronald Reagan and George Bush, will hold its national convention in Louisiana this summer. That seems appropriate. Why shouldn't the party that gave us Ed Meese hold its biggest bash in a state where justice has always been a joke?

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Colonel Nyati Bolt was finally released from prison—and solitary—in 1992. Click here to read a 2008 interview he conducted with NPR.


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