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25 Apr 2019 18:51
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  •   Home > News > International

    How former Black Panther Albert Woodfox survived half a lifetime in solitary confinement

    Former Black Panther Albert Woodfox spent 44 years alone in a tiny cell, despite his conviction being overturned four times and "overwhelming evidence" that he was innocent. He is angry, but not broken.


    Albert Woodfox spent almost 45 years in solitary confinement in a cell barely the size of a bathroom, for a crime he maintains he didn't commit, and despite his conviction being overturned four times.

    Woodfox was already in prison when he was accused of stabbing a prison guard to death, and found guilty despite overwhelming evidence supporting his innocence.

    The former member of the Black Panther Party believes it was his political activism while in prison that sealed his fate, resulting in more than half a lifetime spent alone.

    His cell was just 2.7 metres by 1.8m.

    "[It had] two metal bunks attached to the wall, a metal sink/toilet bowl combination attached to the wall and a metal table and bench attached to the wall across from the bunks," says Woodfox, now 72.

    "But the space is smaller because you only have that narrow path from the back wall to the bars that you can walk."

    Woodfox spent 44 years and 10 months in solitary — longer than any other prisoner in US history — often pacing that well-worn path, and only allowed out for one hour each day.

    "There is some anger. You can't not be angry when people take half of your life away from you," he says.

    "And you can't not be bitter when so much wrong has been done to you, so much physical wrong.

    "[But] despite everything that was done to destroy me, I became stronger. I used my prison cell — that was meant to be a death chamber — as a school."

    The 'bloodiest jail in North America'

    Woodfox, who details his experiences in a new book, Solitary, grew up in a poor New Orleans neighbourhood, and felt oppressed by the government's "racist policies".

    His illiterate mother did what she could to provide for the family.

    But with few prospects and no positive images to aspire to, Woodfox says, being a petty criminal was seen as a prestigious position.

    "When I was coming up, my mum fought so valiantly to try to protect me from criminal life," he says.

    "But the voice of the street was louder than my mum."

    In 1971, at the age of 22, Woodfox was involved in an armed robbery while on parole.

    He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in New Orleans — the "bloodiest jail in North America".

    Built on a former plantation, it was known as "Angola" — a reference to the African homeland of many of the slaves brought to Louisiana.

    Before Woodfox was able to be transferred there, he escaped to Harlem in New York City.

    Though he was recaptured shortly after, it was in Harlem that he came into contact for the first time with members of the Black Panther Party.

    Being a Black Panther

    He says the community work these men were carrying out — including teaching inmates to read and holding political discussions — was a revelation to him, and he decided to join.

    "The voice of the street was louder than my mum … [but] the voice of the Black Panther Party was louder than the voice of the street," Woodfox says.

    "The Panthers spoke about things that I had subconsciously felt, and they spoke in a voice that I had never heard before."

    Woodfox was returned to Angola — which was segregated at the time — where he was exposed to terrifying levels of brutality and sexual violence.

    "Almost every week, someone was being stabbed, bludgeoned or even killed," he says.

    Woodfox knew something had to be done and someone needed to take a stand.

    He and fellow inmate Herman Wallace helped form a Black Panther Party chapter in prison, and began organising education for other inmates and petitions and hunger strikes in protest against segregation, corruption, institutional racism, brutality and murder.

    "Being a Black Panther, I felt it was a duty and obligation to organise and bring an end to this," Woodfox says.

    "I felt if prisoners came together and stopped seeing colour and started seeing humanity, we could take back some kind of control, some sense of self-worth and not allow ourselves to be exploited and treated the way prisoners were at that time — and still are."

    Their activism wasn't popular — among guards and prisoners alike — and Woodfox believes it ultimately changed the course of his life.

    On April 17, 1972, prison guard Brent Miller was murdered; his body found with 32 stab wounds.

    Woodfox says it quickly became clear that prison authorities wanted to pin the murder on those they saw as "militant" troublemakers — the members of the Black Panthers.

    "They were determined to make us pay and be used as an example against other prisoners," he says.

    Woodfox says there was "overwhelming evidence" that he was innocent — eyewitnesses placed him in a completely different area of the prison, and physical evidence "indicated someone else did this".

    "[But] the prison officials had decided that myself and Herman Wallace and some other people had committed this crime," he says.

    Solitary for 23 hours a day

    Woodfox and Wallace were convicted of Miller's murder and sent to solitary confinement, where they would spend the next four decades.

    "I went from being a political victim to being a political prisoner," Woodfox says.

    "One of the infamous wardens ... stated to the press [in 2008] that even if Herman and I were innocent, he wouldn't release us from solitary because he didn't want us running around as prisoners preaching Black Pantherism."

    Woodfox says his involvement with the Black Panther movement transformed him, and he decided he would never be a criminal again.

    He used his time in solitary to gain an education, learning both civil and criminal law.

    But being confined to such a small space for 23 hours a day also does terrible things to the human mind.

    Woodfox suffered from claustrophobia and would pace incessantly, often leaving puddles of sweat during his marches along the short path in his cell.

    He says he knew of inmates who cut themselves or broke their fingers to get out of solitary. Others, he said, killed themselves.

    Fighting for freedom

    Over the years more evidence came to light about the Miller case, including a confession from another man that he set Woodfox up.

    Miller's widow also came to the view it was unlikely Woodfox could have murdered her husband.

    Woodfox repeatedly fought against his conviction, and despite it being overturned several times, he remained in solitary confinement.

    In 2015, the state of Louisiana announced it would try Woodfox for murder a third time but, after months of negotiation with his lawyers, offered a plea deal,

    The offer prompted one of the "most difficult decisions" in Woodfox's life; one he still "in many ways" regrets.

    "All my life I had taught men to stand, to fight [for] what you believe in. So it was very difficult," he says.

    "But I'd been locked up 44 years and 10 months, my daughter had grown from a child to an adult. I had three grandchildren I'd never held, and four great-grandchildren I'd never held."

    He says his mind was made up after his brother relayed a conversation he'd had with Woodfox's daughter.

    "One day he was talking with my daughter and she broke down crying, and said, 'I don't have a daddy'," he says.

    "He said, 'You have a daddy and I think you'd be proud of the man he's become and the things he's accomplished, even in prison'.

    "And she said, 'What would it feel like to hug him? What would it feel like to say Daddy and hear his voice respond? What would it feel like to do things with him?'."

    With that, Woodfox pleaded "no contest" to lesser charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary.

    "It was a plea for freedom, not a plea for guilt," he says.

    He was released on February 19, 2016 — his 69th birthday.

    In 2013, Wallace — who had been diagnosed with advanced liver cancer — had his conviction overturned and he was released from prison.

    The state announced its intention to reindict him but he died just three days after winning his freedom.

    It's now been three years since Woodfox's release, and he says he finds great pleasure in spending time with his family and knowing they're just "a phone call away".

    But he says he is saddened and frustrated that little appears to have changed for the black men and women of America.

    "We still have economic and political and social policies that affect African-Americans, other minorities and poor people in this country," he says.

    "I was gone almost 50 years … America had superficially, on the surface, the appearance of change, but underneath that, all of the things that I knew and grew up in — all of the attitudes — were still there."

    It took Woodfox almost 45 years to win his physical freedom, but in his own way he became a free man while he was in solitary confinement.

    "There was a time in my life when I decided that I would be the human being I wanted to be, that I would take control of my life, I would determine who I am, and not let the policies of this country and prison shape me … my values, my code of conduct," he says.

    "And that has served me well."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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