Angola 3 inmate: from solitary cell to centre of the community
Albert Woodfox spent 44 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana.
At 1,440 square feet, Albert Woodfox’s new house is nearly 27 times the size of the place he called home for more than four decades. When he meets me at the door, one of America’s most famous prisoners is smiling brightly, and squinting into the Louisiana sun. He has reason to be happy. It has been a year and a half since he was released after serving nearly 44 years in solitary confinement in one of the country’s most notorious prisons.
“By any standards I am extraordinarily lucky . . . I lost family members but never the support of my family. The African-American community embraced me when I was released from prison and that took a lot of weight personally off,” he says, as we sit on the patio, where, to beat the swampy midsummer heat, he has dragged a large industrial fan of the sort that sat outside his cell (“there’s something about the familiarity of it”).
Still, since getting out in February 2016, on his 69th birthday, “pretty much everything I do now is a new experience . . . socialising and freedom of movement, getting accustomed to being in loud, large crowds, learning how to speak before people.”
He has spent much of the past year on the road, speaking on panels and delivering lectures around the world about the horrors of solitary confinement, prisoners’ rights and the institutional racism inherent in America’s carceral system. The modest settlement Woodfox reached with the state of Louisiana for his treatment allowed him to buy the house for $65,000 last August, and make investments for his old age.
He laughs at the mess — his dining table is cluttered with papers for the book he is writing, and coasters that read “Don’t F**k Up the Table” — and he points out bedroom sets picked out by his daughter, and the thrift store side table he and his brother fixed up. He waxes lyrical about his great-grandchildren, who spend most of their time in his office — its small bookshelf lined with works about race, incarceration and leftist politics, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Marc Perry’s Negro Soy Yo and a collection of Lenin’s writings — or the large screened-in patio.
“I was ready for this for 44 years [but] I became [mentally] free in my early 40s. That’s when I began to define who I was and moral principles and values, codes of conduct and all that. From that point on I was free,” he says. “This represents physical freedom . . . It allows me to be the voice and the face of solitary confinement victims and institutional racism and brutality and murder in prison.”
Woodfox grew up eight miles away in the Treme, the historical heart of black New Orleans. The oldest of six children of an illiterate mother, he took to petty crime early on and at 18 found himself facing 50 years for robbing a bar. A friend smuggled a gun into the courthouse during his sentencing and he used it to escape, fleeing to New York’s Harlem district. “At that time I was so removed from political consciousness and moral foundation — I was just a petty criminal. The one thing I did recognise when I got to Harlem: this was not the same Harlem [that I’d seen in the past] because of the presence of the Black Panther Party,” he says. “Until that time I had always been aware of a certain fear in black people in New Orleans. For the first time in my life I looked at black people and I saw no fear.”
Woodfox’s home is full of emblems that evoke his own pride. A small clock celebrating the party’s 50th anniversary, a panther statue, the Black Lives Matter stickers he’s affixed to every door. The Panthers were the gloved fist to Martin Luther King’s turned cheek, a militant group disillusioned with the pacifist civil rights movement and incensed by police brutality. They were armed, afro’d and unapologetically black, radicals and socialists who created social programmes in black neighbourhoods long neglected by the government, which targeted them through covert operations, infiltration and in the famous case of Chicago leader Fred Hampton, assassination.
His initial interest in the party was “the beautiful sisters” talking about revolution. He was arrested not long after his arrival in Harlem, after a bookie accused him of robbery, and extradited to New Orleans. In 1972, he was sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary, a former plantation known as Angola, named after the country that supplied its slaves. It is the largest maximum-security prison in the US, housing more than 6,000 inmates, 80 per cent of whom are black. “I was born in New Orleans,” he says. “I grew up in Angola.”
At Angola, Woodfox became steeped in the party’s teachings, consuming Franz Fanon, WEB DuBois, Marcus Garvey. He became — and remains — a “dialectical materialist”, and helped form a chapter of the party at Angola.
At the prison, the Panthers organised anti-rape squads and held classes on economics and politics. They were seen as agitators by the white power structure, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation down to the halls of Angola, where every guard was white.
When a white guard was murdered, four Panthers were hauled in, including Woodfox. There was no physical evidence linking them to the murder, and two inmates said they were eating breakfast with Woodfox when it occurred. But an all-white jury took less than an hour to convict him.
He would spend the next 43 years and 10 months in a 6ft by 9ft cell, much of it with no human contact. He and two other Panthers — Robert King and Herman Wallace — became known as the Angola 3. “The one thing about survival for me in solitary confinement was adaptation, almost instant adaptation,” he says.
In solitary, Woodfox was allowed to read and write and spent hours every day on letters to penpals, including prominent political prisoners. He mainly spoke to Wallace through his window, which faced “the yard” — the concrete slab where the shackled prisoners were allowed an hour a day outdoors. For the first six years, the prisoners were only allowed to walk alone for that hour along the tier that passed other prisoners, and the trio spent it holding courses in maths, grammar and politics for the other inmates.
In solitary, Woodfox saw “men in the most horrible conditions and the overwhelming majority of them break and become institutionalised”. He and his two comrades did not “because of the teachings and the influence of the party”. But he took some habits with him when he left. He’s still a news junkie from his time inside. He has suffered a few bouts of claustrophobia since his release. But none were as bad as the crippling spells he suffered inside. “I didn’t go through a month without having claustrophobic attacks,” he says. “One time it was so bad I couldn’t lie down because I felt as though I was being smothered or suffocated so for about three years I slept sitting up.”
He rises around 3am, which is when the prison was quiet — “you have people who are insane on the tier, who scream and holler” — and he could get his studying done. He remains “a nibbler” — “given the state of the food sometimes . . . it wasn’t hard to pass up.” His kitchen, lightly stocked with white bread, pickles and a neat line of crisp bags on top of the fridge — for great-grandchildren — is testament to this.
Woodfox hosted the whole family, along with Angola 3 supporters, for Christmas last year. He scrolls through pictures on his phone, looking for the party and ends up conducting a slideshow of his life, and everything he missed while he was inside. His younger brother, Michael, who didn’t skip a visit for 44 years. King and Wallace. Ruby, Woodfox’s mother, who died in 1994 — the warden refused to let Woodfox out for the funeral. His sister, Violetta, who died in 2000 — another funeral he missed. His brothers and their children and their children’s children. Lives lived while he was locked up. Finally, there are his great-grandchildren — a big part of the reason he is out today, he says.
The Angola 3’s cases were championed by prison rights advocates and the party (before it disintegrated towards the end of the 1970s), largely forgotten about and then picked up decades later by Amnesty International and Anita Roddick, the British founder of The Body Shop. Even as fresh trials overturned their convictions, the state kept reindicting them. King got out in 2001. Wallace followed in 2013, after 41 years in solitary. He was bedridden with liver cancer and died three days later. Woodfox remained for two more years.
He’d been offered a deal to plead no contest to manslaughter, but on principle hadn’t planned to accept it, until his daughter Brenda visited him with her two grandchildren. The young ones put their hands against the glass that separated them from their great-grandfather, and he placed his on the other side. “I hadn’t felt something beyond my belief and struggle that deeply before and so I talked with [my brother] Michael and told him, ‘I’ve got to go back to New Orleans.’ Before I even told him why, he said, ‘yes, I know: them kids’,” he says. “I said, ‘yes, those grand-babies’.”
“I missed the chance to be a direct influence in my daughter’s life and I missed the chance to be a direct influence in my grandkids’ lives. They’re grown now,” he says. “But I have a chance to be a direct influence and I see it in my great-grandkids’ eyes.”