The man who spent 43 years in solitary confinement
Albert Woodfox spent more than half his life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Now free, the American activist tells journalist Ben Machell what it’s like on the outside
HE LIVES alone in a comfortable three-bedroom house but occasionally when he wakes at night and is surrounded by darkness, he forgets this. For a moment Albert Woodfox is confused. “But then I’ll realise, ‘Oh, I’m in my house’. I can walk up and down the block. I can go to the park.”
The ability to move around is something Albert never takes for granted. He even paces while he talks, walking about his bedroom in a tight circuit for much of our interview.
The reason for this isn’t a mystery. In
February 2016 Albert was released from an American prison having served 43 years in solitary confinement for a murder he didn’t commit.
By the time he was finally exonerated – and he had always maintained his innocence – nobody in American history had spent longer under such conditions, which were defined as torture by both the United Nations and Amnesty International.
“When I first went into solitary confinement, you had access to nothing – no books or magazines. No TV. No radio. Nothing,” says Albert (72), who is slightly built with rectangular glasses, a neat goatee and a grey Afro.
Since his release in 2016, Albert says he’s spent a lot of time “trying to convey how horrible solitary confinement is”, although generally people still don’t get it.
“Imagine standing in your bedroom for 23 hours a day,” he says in his husky Louisiana drawl. “Imagine being in this confined space and not having any way out.”
To combat the mind-numbing repetitiveness, he tried anything to create the illusion of change. He would spend months eating his breakfast on his bunk so that when he finally switched to eating it standing up, it would feel like a profoundly new experience.
“Deep down I always knew it was the same routine. I couldn’t really trick myself into believing otherwise.”
His wounds aren’t just psychological. He chuckles as he recounts the physical injuries received at the hands of prison guards. “Even now, I have a spot on my head where they split my skull. My left hip gives out on me sometimes as a result of being hit in the back with a baseball bat.”
How did a small-time criminal from New Orleans find himself charged with a murder he did not commit and then go on to break all national records for time spent in solitary confinement?
ALBERT recently published an autobiography, Solitary, in which he sets out to answer everything. He describes growing up poor in the segregated South. “I robbed people, scared them, threatened them, intim
idated them,” he writes in his memoir.
At 17 he was sentenced to two years in jail for car theft but managed to escape. A chaotic criminal career saw him in and out of jail over the next few years.
In 1969, during a court sentencing, he fled the building using a pistol an accomplice had hid in the paper-towel dispenser of the court toilet.
He was arrested again soon after for armed robbery and because of his multiple crimes, was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
It was in a New York jail that he was to have an experience that would change his life.
He encountered men who introduced themselves as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense – men who, despite being jailed, seemed to radiate pride, confidence and compassion.
By the time Albert was transferred to Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in America, he was a fully-fledged member of the Panthers and committed to educating other black prisoners about what he believed was American society’s deep-rooted racism.
Albert says his vocal commitment to the Black Panthers and his work to recruit members at the prison known as Angola – the name of the former slave plantation on which it was built – made him a target for prison authorities.
On 17 April 1972 a white prison guard named Brent Miller was stabbed 32 times in a black dorm. Albert and a fellow Black Panther, Herman Wallace, were charged with his murder.
The evidence was flimsy and relied heavily on the testimony of a key witness – a serial rapist serving a life sentence without parole – who named Albert and Herman as the killers.
There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime scene, and Albert’s insistence that he was eating breakfast in the canteen at the time was backed up by other inmates.
Yet he and Herman were found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to life imprisonment. After their convictions had been secured the key witness, the serial rapist, was granted a pardon.
ALBERT knows he was made a scapegoat because of his Pantherism. “They wanted to contain my influence . . . they wanted to break me.” He and Herman were thrown into solitary confinement. They were joined by another Panther, Robert King, who had been convicted of murdering a fellow inmate. Collectively, they became known as the Angola Three and continued their policy of resistance.
Eventually prison authorities began to
make them an offer at the end of each 90-day stretch: “Renounce the Black Panther Party, stop our political activities, give up our political beliefs and they would release us from solitary,” Albert says.
“And we would always say – and please excuse my language – ‘Go f*** yourself ’.”
The three men could communicate by shouting from their cells and congregating during their hour of recreation time, when they would teach other inmates maths and grammar.
At times the Angola Three appeared almost superhuman. When allowed outside for exercise they would run barefoot, even in the frost, simply to show they could.
“I would never allow myself to become dependent on something because the administrators had the power to take away whatever you have in the blink of an eye.”
In 2000, the plight of the Angola Three was brought to the attention of The Body Shop owner and human rights activist Anita Roddick. She paid for a lawyer for the three men and in 2001, Robert’s conviction was overturned on appeal.
Albert’s turn came in 2016. By then even the widow of the murdered prison guard was campaigning for his freedom.
On 19 February 2016 – his 69th birthday – Albert walked free. His brother, Michael, escorted him from prison and then the two men drove to the cemetery where their mother was buried.
Laying flowers felt, he says, like laying down a burden he’d been forced to carry for years. “I had to wait for so long to go to her grave and tell her how much I loved her and missed her.”
Three years on from his release, Albert is still adjusting to freedom. American society, he stresses, hasn’t improved all that much since the sixties.
“I was shocked and sad there was no real change,” he says.
“We have a situation where white supremacism is on the rise in America and around the world, and that’s a threat to the democratic process.”
People often ask him if he would change anything about his life, but his answer is always the same. “Not one thing,” he says. “All I went through made me the man I am today.”
‘Imagine standing in your bedroom for 23 hours a day, not having any way out'
LEFT: These days Albert Woodfox is a sought-after speaker. RIGHT: A chain gang works outside Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Albert spent his years in solitary confinement.
FAR LEFT: Herman Wallace and Albert were found guilty of murdering prison guard Brent Miller (LEFT). ABOVE: With Robert King, who together with Albert and Herman formed part of the Angola Three. The trio spent their prison sentences in one of America’s most notorious jails.