Albert Woodfox, survivor of 42 years in solitary confinement, dies aged 75

Written by Javed Iqbal

Albert Woodfox, who spent 42 years in solitary confinement — possibly more time than any other prisoner in American history — and yet emerged to win acclaim with a memoir declaring his spirit unbroken, died Thursday in New Orleans. He was 75.

His lead lawyer, George Kendall, said the cause was Covid-19. Mr. Kendall added that Mr. Woodfox also had a number of pre-existing organ conditions.

Mr. Woodfox was placed in solitary confinement in 1972 after being accused of murdering Brent Miller, a 23-year-old corrections officer. A tangled legal ordeal ensued, including two convictions, both overturned, and three indictments spanning four decades.

The case struck most commentators as problematic. No forensic evidence linked Mr. Woodfox to the crime, so the authorities’ argument depended on witnesses who over time were discredited or proved to be unreliable.

“The facts of the case were on his side,” New York Times editorial wrote in a 2014 opinion piece about Mr. Woodfox.

But Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell saw things differently. “This is the most dangerous person on the planet,” he told NPR in 2008.

Mr. Woodfox’s punishment defied the imagination, not only for its monotony—he was alone 23 hours a day in a six-by-nine-foot cell—but also for its torments and humiliations. He was gassed and beaten, he wrote in a memoir, “Solitary” (2019), in which he described how he had maintained his sanity and dignity while in solitary confinement. He was strip-searched with unnecessary, brutal frequency.

His plight first gained national attention when he became known as one of the “Angola Three,” men held in constant solitary confinement for decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly called Angola, after a slave plantation that once occupied the site.

In 2005, a federal judge wrote that the time the men had spent in solitary confinement went “so far beyond the pale” that there appeared to be “nothing at all comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence.”

Mr. Woodfox would spend more than another decade in solitary confinement before becoming the last of the three men to be released from prison in 2016.

His first stay in Angola came in 1965 after he was convicted of a series of minor crimes committed as a teenager. The prison was notoriously harsh, even to the point of evoking the days of slavery. Black prisoners, like Mr. Woodfox, did field work by hand, overseen by white jailers on horseback, with shotguns across their laps. New inmates were often admitted into a regime of sexual slavery encouraged by guards.

He was released after eight months and was soon accused of car theft, which led to another eight months in Angola. He then began a darker criminal career, beating and robbing people.

In 1969, Mr. Woodfox convicted again, this time for armed robbery, and sentenced to 50 years in prison. At that time, as a seasoned offender, he managed to sneak a gun into the courthouse where he was being sentenced and escape. He fled to New York City and landed in Harlem.

A few months later he was imprisoned again, this time in the Tombs, Manhattan prison, where he spent about a year and a half.

It turned out to be a turning point, he wrote in his memoir. At the graves, he met members of the Black Panther Party, who controlled his cell level not by force, but by sharing food. They held discussions and treated people with respect and intelligence, he wrote. They argued that racism was an institutional phenomenon that infected police departments, banks, universities, and juries.

Credit…via Leslie George

“It was as if a light went on in a room inside me that I had not known existed,” wrote Mr. Woodfox. “I had morals, principles and values ​​I never had before.”

He added: “I would never be a criminal again.”

He was sent back to Angola in 1971, believing himself to be a reformed man. But his most serious conviction – for murdering the Angola corrections officer in 1972, which he denied – was still ahead of him, and with it four decades in solitary confinement, a period that was only broken for about a year and a half in the 1990s while he awaited reinstatement.

The other two members of the Angola Three, Robert King and Herman Wallace, were also Panthers and began their solitary confinement in Angola the same year as Mr. Woodfox. The three became friends by yelling at each other from their cells. They were “our own means of inspiration to one another,” wrote Mr. Woodfox. In his spare time, he added, “I turned my cell into a university, a debating hall, a law school.”

He taught an inmate to read, he said, by instructing him how to sound out words in a dictionary. He told him to call him at any time of the day or night if he couldn’t understand something.

Albert Woodfox was born on February 19, 1947, in New Orleans to Ruby Edwards, who was 17. He never had a relationship with his biological father, Leroy Woodfox, he wrote, but for much of his childhood he considered a man, who later married his mother, a naval cook named James B. Mable, his “father”.

When Albert was 11, Mr. Mable retired from the Navy and the family moved to La Grange, NC. Mr. Mable, recalled Mr. Woodfox, started drinking and beating Mrs Edwards. She fled the family home with Albert and two of his brothers and took them back to New Orleans.

As a boy, Albert stole bread and canned goods when there was no food in the house. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade. His mother looked after a bar and occasionally worked as a prostitute, and Albert began to loathe her.

“I allowed myself to believe that the strongest, most beautiful, most powerful woman in my life meant nothing,” he wrote in his memoirs.

His mother died in 1994 while he was in prison. He was not allowed to attend her funeral.

The first of the three Angolas to be released from prison was Mr. King, whose conviction was overturned in 2001. The other, Mr. Wallace, was released in 2013 because he had liver cancer. He died three days later.

In a deal with prosecutors, Mr. Woodfox released in 2016 in exchange for pleading no contest to a charge of manslaughter in the 1972 killing. By then he had been moved out of Angola.

His imprisonment over, the first thing he wanted to do was visit his mother’s grave.

“I told her I was free now and I loved her,” he wrote. “It was more painful than anything I experienced in prison.”

Mr. Woodfox is survived by his brothers, James, Haywood, Michael and Donald Mable; a daughter, Brenda Poole, from a relationship he had in his teenage years; three grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and his life partner, Leslie George.

Mrs. George was a journalist who began reporting on Mr. Woodfox’s case in 1998 and met him in 1999. They became a couple when he was released from prison.

Mrs. George co-wrote Mr. Woodfox’s book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and The Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. In a review in The Times, Dwight Garner called “Solitary” “unusually powerful”; in The Times Book Review, author Thomas Chatterton Williams described that as “above mere advocacy or even memoir,” belonging more “in the realm of Stoic philosophy.”

After being released, Mr. Woodfox again learn to go down stairs, how to walk without leg irons, how to sit without being chained. But in one interview speaking to The Times just after his release, he spoke of having already freed himself years earlier.

“When I began to understand who I was, I considered myself free,” he said. “No matter how much concrete they use to keep me in a certain place, they couldn’t stop my mind.”

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Javed Iqbal

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