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

DRUM - - Contents -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.