Image by Jia Sung.
Albert Woodfox lived in solitary confinement in prison longer than any other American, confined to a 6 foot by 9 foot cell for 23 hours each day—for nearly 44 years.
Produced in collaboration with Amnesty International UK.
Additional clips appear courtesy:
The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation (2009)
Louisiana: The State We’re In (1980)
The FBI’s War on Black America (2014)
36 Years of Solitary: Murder, Death and Justice on Angola and ‘Angola 2’ Leave Solitary Cells in La. After 36 Years, from NPR’s Laura Sullivan (2008)
The Big House (1998)
Militants Said Cause of Death from The Times-Picayune (1972)
Exclusive Interview: Albert Woodfox of Angola 3, Freed After 43 Years in Solitary Confinement from Democracy Now (2016)
Angola 3 Inmate Tastes Brief, ‘Bittersweet’ Freedom, from NPR’s Arun Rath (2013)
Black Panthers: The Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
Final song: It’s My Brown Skin by Helado Negro, from the album Private Energy.Playlist
Albert Woodfox – Prisoner
Producers: Amnesty International UK, Jessi Carrier, Sam Lawlor
The routine’s become a big part of your life. You start organizing your day around routines… At least I did. Most of the guys, they either went insane or became catatonic, or they withdraw in themselves.
I’ve seen men reduced to screaming, I’ve seen men convert to being babies, curling in fetal positions and just laying there. I’ve seen men beat their heads against the bars, I’ve seen the brutality of security who have no training and they’re unequipped to deal with guys when they have these breakdowns. Their solution is to lock them in the dungeon, which is just another form of solitary confinement, in this submission.
I don’t know if I can find the words to even give the listener an idea of how horrible it is to be in solitary confinement.
44 years is a long time.
* * *
The overwhelming majority of my life was in prison, but my earlier years – right here in New Orleans. I was at a parade, about 12-13, somewhere up in there, and I remember this guy had this beautiful pair of beads, white. I just I knew those beads were meant for my mom, so like I’m doing everything, trying to attract his attention; I’m jumping up, “Hey, mister, mister! Over here! Show me the bead!” So he threw the beads, and this little white girl – she must have been about 12 years old – comes out of nowhere. We both grab the beads at the same time, and she’s like “These are mine, these are mine!”, I’m like “No, this is for me! This is for my mom!” and I’m hollering at the guy, “Hey, tell her these are mine! These are mine!”
He started pointing at me, telling her that the beads were for me. And when she kind of like whipped them out of my hand, they broke; beads were just flying, and everything… And she says like “You fuckin’ nigga!”
That was the first I had ever heard the word “nigger”, which was kind of used then and even now in black neighborhoods, but it had not racial connection to it. And I’m sorry… You know, the thing about pain is it’s always fresh, no matter how long between the time you experienced the pain, and every time you talk about it, I could feel it… And that was the first time that I really experienced direct racism, and I’ve always lived with that pain.
It’s just kind of hard to put into words as I look back on my life, but I was very good at being a petty criminal. I spent a lot of time in the French Quarter, hustling tourists for money, odd works, waiter jobs, breaking cars, breaking houses, shoplift, a lot of encounters with the police. It was kind of like a rite of passage in my neighborhood. I think they were afforded to a nice street cred – the more you encountered the police, the more experiences you had and you come out on the other side.
There weren’t a lot of things that inspired African Americans at that time. I didn’t have dreams of wanting to be a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut or any of those things because there were no images, at least none that I knew of.
My dream was just to make it from one day to the next.
My mom, she fought valiantly. She had five boys and one girl, and she was trying to protect all of us on our own… So I couldn’t hear what she was trying to say, but I could hear the calling of the street.
When a black man went to trial back in the old times, in the ’60s, 99.9% of the time he’d have an all-white jury, and they would always find him guilty.
I was charged with armed robbery, and I was sentenced 50 years. The day that I went and got sentenced, I managed to escape. I saw a lapse in their security. A friend of mine who was on the tier at the time got out, but when he got out, he snuck and brought me a gun and hid it in the bedroom. When we got on the elevator, after everybody had been sentenced, I just used the gun and forced the deputy to take us to the basement. I escaped from the courtroom and made my way into Harlem, New York.
Most people that were in the party you’d hear them just say “the Party”, but the official name was “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.”
It was the first time I’d ever encountered women of the caliber of the Black Panther; you know, proud, confident, very beautiful… My initial thing was to try to just get with them, whatever time. I’d hit on them when they’d be talking about the revolution, and protection for the people in the community and stuff, and they would invite me to come around by the office.
One thing I noticed for the very first time – I didn’t see fear. There was always this look; you could sense the fear in black people… Fear of everything – fear of living, fear of dying, but these men and women were fearless, and were moving through the community and they had such a command of themselves and what they were doing… And I noticed a couple of times that the police would be patrolling, and for the first time I saw the fear in them.
I began to realize that I was not a bad person, that I was the victim of a racist society and that it was almost pre-ordained that I would wound up in prison. All the things I had heard, all of a sudden they started to resonate. Probably the term to use – an awakening, you know? That was the beginning of who I am now and what I believe in.[…and so it’s very apparent that the police were not protecting us but the security of the business owners and the community, and also that the status quo is kept intact.]
A lot of groups at that time – they talked and they rallied and they marched, whereas the Panthers were engaged in direct action.
They had a ten-point program.[You say you want freedom?]
Self-determination… Demand for jobs, medical care, some kind of Black History to be taught in schools…
That was pretty much unheard of at that time.
I don’t think anyone thought that the Party would become so powerful so quick and have such an impact socially, to the point where J. Edgar Hoover declared the Party the number one threat to internal security.[ …in 1969 Hoover said the Panthers have perpetrated numerous assaults on police, and have engaged in violent confrontations throughout the country.
– Do you feel the nation is in trouble?
– I think definitely it is.
– Well, what is the answer?
– The answer is vicious law enforcement.
– That’s the only answer…?
– That’s the only answer.
– How about justice? You hear a lot about justice with law enforcement.
– Justice is merely incidental to law and order.]
Eventually, I got arrested. The state of New York, the judge ruled I had to come back to Louisiana, so I was returned to the Orleans Parish Prison. Then they sent me to Angola.
The reason it’s called Angola is because it used to be a big slave plantation, and the overwhelming majority of the slaves there came from the country of Angola in Africa. It’s a plantation prison. It was designated the most violent prison in America.[’71, ’72 ’73 and ’74 were some of the bloodiest years in the history of Angola
In 1971 there were 82 stabbings of inmates. Three of them died.
Death by stabbing.
We’re putting you in Angola and you’re gonna die there. You’ve got desperate men on your hands, because they have nothing to live for. The guys see no hope for a tomorrow, a future.
Well, when I first came in Angola, the only people carrying guns were prisoners.
Will says there were 200 armed convict guards who abused and tortured the other inmates. There was a rampant rate of prisoner slave trade. Inmates were so afraid of stabbings they slept with JCPenney catalogs tied to their chests.]
I witnessed a lot of brutality, a lot of exploitation. Foolish stuff that was designated for the inmate population, security people would take it. I think the hardest for me was watching these young kids coming in there, 17, some of them just making 18, and guys raping them in and forcing them into sex slaves, a market that existed in the population.
I started to just talk to the guys… Talking to guys about the conditions of the prison, the racism and the corruption of the administration, and stuff. We deserved to be treated better than basically like animals.[Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox went to Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1972. Wallace had robbed a bank, Woodfox was convicted of armed robbery…]
You know, I knew Herman. We were in the Party together, but he was on a different tier.[It was Albert and I, and two other brothers. We’d come together and we began to re-educate these guys.] He was pretty much doing the same thing, organizing, trying to educate guys and raised their level of conscience.
[The guys understood how sincere we were.]
Of course, we sought each other out, found each other and formally united and we started working together.
I think the principal argument was that they were human beings, they were not animals. They deserved to treat each other and themselves better, and they deserved to demand the same treatment from security… Not to be beaten and not to be raped and not to be exploited. The only way they could get this was to come together in unity. I think we made a lot of headway.
Eventually, we said we’re in for a penny, in for a pound – we should try to form a Black Panther chapter. We wrote to the New Orleans chapter and they contacted the headquarter, and the headquarter said “Yeah, do it. If you can, do it.” So we formed the only prison branch of the Black Panther Party.
We started demanding – not begging, but demanding – change from the administration, and in the entire state of Louisiana.
I was working in the dining hall, at the kitchen. Everybody that worked in the back of the kitchen worked one day on, one day off. The guys in the front in the dining hall, they were working like 16 hours a day, seven days a week. So I started talking to them about why because you get one day on, one day off, and y’all work seven days a week, 16 hours a day. It’s wrong, it’s unfair. It violates your rights as a human being. Just because they come to prison, they didn’t lose their rights as human beings.
There was a work stoppage. The guys in the front would just support that the guys in the back wouldn’t feed the population. They demanded to see someone to talk about better working conditions.
After that was resolved, they found Brent Miller dead in the probably one dormitory.[Angola Louisiana. Black Power militants in Angola State Prison staged the attacks in which one white guard was knifed to death, and another burned by a firebomb, the warden said Tuesday.]
Brent Miller was a prison guard.[Warden Murray Henderson said guard Brent Miller, 23, set upon and stabbed in the dormitory one day, was killed simply because he happened to be alone and handy.]
I never had any contact with him, because I lived on Hickory Unit.
[“I don’t think this guy was picked out at all”, said Henderson. He was a popular man. I think it would have happened to any white guard who happened to have been in there at that time.”]
Everything I learned about him, I learned after the fact, after he had been found murdered.[Henderson said 30 prisoners considered to be black militant activists had been taken out of the dormitories and shifted to maximum security cells.]
What happened was I went to breakfast that morning at eight. Because it was my day off, I could do whatever I wanted to do for that day. I was [inaudible] four. And I went down and got into bed, went to sleep… I don’t know how long it was; I heard the whistles blowing and security people screaming in the hall.
I get dressed, I get on the walk, and I see all these security men are running up and down the walk in a panic. Some had machine guns and shotguns and all that, and they were threatening everybody. Nigga this, nigga that, nigga this…
They made everybody form a line on the left-hand side of the wall, and proceed up the walk towards where the dining hall was located. And when I got in there, I was forced to strip down naked, and my clothes were taken. I was threatened at gunpoint, and they gave me some new jeans and a shirt, and then put me in the dungeon, so I actually was the first guy arrested for the Brent Miller murder.[Albert Woodfox was serving a sentence for armed robbery at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) when he and fellow prisoner Herman Wallace were accused of stabbing prison guard Brent Miller.
The two men have always maintained their innocence, saying they were targeted because they had organized a chapter of the Black Panther Party…]
Well, the first trial lasted about two days. I was found guilty of murder in the first degree. Their intention was to give me a death penalty, but the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty, so they could only give me a life sentence. So they gave me life without parole.
I went int0 solitary confinement on 18th April ’72, and I wasn’t released from solitary confinement until I got my freedom on 19th February 2016. So I actually stayed in solitary confinement – if you wanna be explicit – 43 years and ten months.[We must not for a moment lose sight of our goal – to teach the criminal that regardless of his subterfuges, his squirming, his twisting and slimy wriggling, he cannot escape the one inextricable rule of law enforcement you can’t get away with.]
They actually moved us to the CCR cell block. CCR stands for Closed Cell Restriction. You’re in a nine by six cell; there’s a metal bunk attached to the wall, a metal [inaudible] zink combination attached to the wall. Some of the cells had a metal table attached to the wall, in some of the cells it had been removed, but you’re inside, you’re in the cell for 23 hours out of a day. You get one hour a day to shower, whatever.
So we must start making plans on how we would survive this… Short-term plans; like I said, we had no idea that we were gonna be in CCR for decades, in solitary confinement.
The sole purpose in solitary confinement is to break people. Break their spirits, destroy their hopes, destroy their dreams, destroy their ability to be productive human beings.
They told us, “Y’all gonna die in these cells” when they first put us in there. “This is your coffin.”
We realized that we were gonna survive. The one thing we couldn’t do is become institutionalized, meaning that we couldn’t turn inward to the prison, and that we had to have something different.
The institution routine pretty much remained the same. Breakfast at a certain time, but you always got only one hour out of the cell every 24. They eventually put TV’s there, but these are toys. These don’t distract – at least for me – from being confined to a nine by six area for 23 hours out of a 24 hour period with no end in sight.
It’s very difficult to try to fill your day. With me, it was reading. Sometimes I would read as many as 12 books in a week, trying to improve myself, trying to maintain a philosophy that was geared towards society. We couldn’t travel physically, but we could travel philosophically and intellectually from one end of the planet to the other.
The cells that were meant to be death chambers became schools and debate halls. We taught ourselves history, geography, math, we taught ourselves the law, and that became one of the many tools we used to bring about change in Angola.
They used to put our food on the floor and slide it under the door. We wanted them to cut food slots in the door or in the cell where they could sit our food. We went on a hunger strike for that, and that — I don’t know, that almost killed me. At some point your body is not getting nourished and it starts feeding on itself. We looked like skeletons.
That was probably the hardest thing I ever did, and that lasted 45 days. But we held out…
When they agreed to cut slots, it was like “Well, we don’t have the material right now. We’ve got to order stuff and all that.” We said “Okay, but we’re not gonna pull trays under the door; we’ll stand up and hold our trays and eat through the bars.”
They cut the bars all over the prison and they came to our cells last because we were at the vanguard of the protest about putting the food on the floor.
I always say, if what you believe in, the cause you’re fighting for is a noble cause, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. With all the suffering I have endured – the physical, the mental, the emotional suffering, I’ve always tried to remember that what I’m doing is worth whatever the consequences I may have to suffer. I took a stand a long time ago, and it has sustained me for the last 47 years.
The only time I ever thought I would go insane was when my mother passed away. I think that’s the only time that I came close to breaking. The day I learned my mom had passed away, I was in a state of grieving. I remember I laid down and went to sleep, and I woke up and the ceiling was like right there. I was sweating, kind of like telling myself “Don’t panic, don’t panic. Stay calm, stay calm. Close your eyes, don’t look.”
Eventually, the cell kind of like got back to a nine by six instead of a match box. The claustrophobic attack became real, real bad. Maybe three, four months I kind of like just existed. The pain never went away, but it became manageable.
I don’t know if I have adequate words to describe what it’s like to be in a state of where nothing you do is gonna change your situation. I went almost 20 years without any disciplinary reports, and it made no difference when I went before the review board. No matter how much you change, it makes no difference.[Herman Wallace had spent 41 years in solitary confinement, while already serving a 50-year sentence for armed robbery. Wallace, along with Robert King and Albert Woodfox, was convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1974. On Tuesday, a judge overturned Wallace’s conviction, on the grounds that he had been denied a fair trial, because he was indicted by a grand jury composed solely of men, in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.]
Herman did 41 years, and died three days later from liver cancer… But he died free. He was intelligent, he had that stubborn streak in him, you know? He was a good comrade, but he was a great friend, and I truly miss him. I think the world lost a true [inaudible] I still think of that old man a lot, you know?[This is Herman Wallace, along with Albert Woodfox, out of solitary confinement here at Angola State Penitentiary. The Angola Three reaches out to you from the belly of the beast. It is not that we have been held captive for over 35 years in prison, or that this important. What is important is that we continue to hold high the principles of the Black Panther Party.
Time has changed our bodies, but not our resolve, nor has it taken our strength. Grey hairs adorn our heads, but our minds are free.
I never lost hope that I’d be free. Mostly, that’s what I was telling myself, but intellectually I was convinced that I was gonna die in prison, you know? But as you know, things turn out different.[Albert Woodfox has spent more than 43 years in solitary confinement, more than anyone else in the United States. He has been released from the Angola Prison in Louisiana. Woodfox walked free on Friday…]
I went to court on my birthday, the day I turned 69. I signed out, and stuff. We walked out the door and I could see all the family members, a lot of my supporters were there, my brothers were there, and I could hear them cheering and clapping and stuff, and my knee buckled… It wasn’t obvious, because my brother, Michael, he grabbed my arm and said “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
I went to where my sister was buried, I said goodbye to her, and the next day I bought some roses and said goodbye to my momma. It was a very, very heavy burden lifted off my chest… Because even though I knew it wasn’t my fault, I still felt as though somehow I let my momma down by not saying that final goodbye.
* * *
We’re not the only ones that accomplished great things in solitary, but we’re the lucky ones, we’re the ones that got the support. We feel like we have a responsibility and the obligation, the struggle against the abuse of solitary, corruption, brutality by security people…
For the solitary, if we can’t abolish it, then we will try to restrict its use. We want rehabilitative programs for guys locked in solitary confinement. My ultimate goal is to carry that torch I’m carrying, and long enough where when my time comes, I can hand that torch to another young man or woman, and say “Carry on!”
It still hasn’t sunk in. Sometimes I’m expecting a knock on the door… “A mistake has been made” or “We’ve got a new charge”, or something like that.
People ask me what it’s like to be free. I don’t have an answer, because here I’ve always been free, for many years, since I was in my forties. Every morning I’ll go outside and just sit there by myself. There’s a lot of squirrels, and birds, and stuff. It’s a really nice neighborhood, really quiet. Those kinds of things there made me think about what I have now. This is where I belong… This is where I belong.