Lead Story West Edition

A survivor’s tale of 40 years in solitary confinement

LEIMERT PARK — Albert Woodfox is a survivor.

He survived solitary confinement for much of the 43 years and 10 months he served in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, for a crime he says he didn’t commit.

Woodfox, a member of the Black Panthers and a member of the Angola 3, which included Herman Wallace and Robert King, has chronicled his life story in his autobiography, “Solitary,” which was recently released and has been critically acclaimed for its raw and unflinching honesty.

He appeared at Eso Won Books May 2 in Leimert Park as part of an eight-city national book tour where he was interviewed by UCLA law professor Bryonn Bain.

Sporting a bushy gray Afro, Woodfox seemed remarkably at ease for having endured more than four decades of incarceration, jovially speaking with audience members and quietly posing for pictures. It was clear that despite his four-decade ordeal, Woodfox’s spirit remained intact and unbroken.

Born in Treme, Louisiana, Woodfox grew up in poverty.

At 18, Woodfox he was sent to prison after being sentenced for 50 years for committing an armed robbery.

On April 17, 1972, a white guard working at Louisiana State Penitentiary was found dead of multiple stab wounds.  Woodfox and Wallace were indicted and convicted of the prison officer’s murder by an all-white jury, even though they said they did not commit the murder.

There was no physical evidence linking them to the killing and exculpatory evidence was withheld. They were convicted in April 1974.

Convicted of murder and given their membership in the Black Panthers, Woodfox and Wallace were immediately put in solitary confinement by the warden.

At Angola, considered the most dangerous prison in the South, Woodfox said that violence from guards and inmates was an everyday occurrence. The inmates endured eating substandard food, unsanitary conditions and were faced with the constant threat of rape.

Woodfox, along with Wallace, were sequestered by guards in tiny 6-by-9-foot cells for 23 hours a day.

“We made a vow to stay strong,” Woodfox said. “We made a commitment that prison wouldn’t break us or drive us insane.”

According to statistics, people of color are disproportionately incarcerated at higher rates in U.S. prisons than their white counterparts. Although they make up around 11% of the population, they account for 60% of those incarcerated.

Woodfox was granted one hour a day to leave his cell. During that time, Woodfox, King and Wallace held classes for the other inmates, passing out carbon-copied lessons on math and grammar.

Woodfoxestablished the first Black Panther Party in Angola prison and spent time teaching fellow inmates how to read, many of whom were illiterate. “We shared information on politics, economics, sociology and the history of slavery,” he said.

The Panthers would tear out chapters of books such as Franz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” and distribute them to prisoners and then quiz them later on what they had read.

Woodfox said one of the ways he kept his sanity during the decades of incarceration was to become a voracious reader. He also was allowed a small television set in his cell where he kept up on national news and world events.

Woodfox said that at Angola, inmates frequently preyed on other prisoners.

“In prison, either you are looking for a victim or you are victimized,” he said. “I was listening to what other inmates were saying, but I wasn’t having it.”

Woodfox and other Black Panthers banned together to form an anti-rape squad for new prisoners who were often targets for sexual victimization. They protected new prisoners, called “fresh fish,” from getting sexually molested by other inmates.

Woodfox said in his book that there were times when he felt that the walls of his small prison cell were squeezing him to death. He would prop himself up in bed sleeping upright to avoid the sensation of being smothered alive.

But Woodfox credits his mother for helping him endure his long years of incarceration.

“My mom was functionally illiterate, but she was my hero,” he said. “She could only read and write her name, but she was one of the wisest women I ever heard in my life. I would hear my mother’s voice and some of the things she had told me. She set the example.”

Through sheer will and determination, Woodfox survived solitary confinement, but stated that “Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment — the worst form of torture.

“I have seen guys cut their throats and cut their bellies open to escape solitary confinement,” he said. “It robs you of your sense of self-worth, takes away your dignity, pride and self-esteem and is designed to destroy you.”

Amnesty International called for the release of Woodfox on Nov. 20, 2014, and Woodfox’s conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals. In April 2015, his lawyer applied for a writ for his release.His unconditional release was approved June 10, 2015, but he wasn’t released until Feb. 19, 2016.

Robert King served 32 years at Angola, 29 of them in solitary confinement. He was released from prison in 2001 and travels internationally speaking about political prisoners and the American justice system.

Woodfox’s longtime friend Herman Wallace was not so fortunate. Wallace was released from Angola in 2013, but was suffering from third stage terminal liver cancer. He died two days after being set free after 41 years in solitary confinement.

At Eso Won, Woodfox wore a T-shirt with Wallace’s name emblazoned on it in honor of his friend.

While in Angola, Woodfox said that he almost lost his mind when his mother died in 1994.

Woodfox had been denied permission by prison authorities to attend her funeral.

“I was thankful she lived long enough for me to tell her I loved her,” he said.

Once released, the first place Woodfox visited was the cemetery where his mother was buried.

“When I got to the cemetery, it was closed,” Woodfox said. “I had waited over 20 years to say goodbye to my mother. I tried to climb the fence but my friend who drove me to the cemetery persuaded me to return the next day when the gates were open.”

Since his release, Woodfox has traveled the country speaking about the evils of solitary confinement in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Baton Rouge, and has vowed to devote the rest of his life fighting the inhumanity of solitary confinement and the American criminal justice system.

“The American criminal justice system is in dire need of reform,” he said.