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Freed Prisoner Albert Woodfox on Transformation & Hope After Four Decades in Solitary Confinement

Web ExclusiveMarch 29, 2019
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Our extended interview with Albert Woodfox, the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the United States. He was held 43 years in isolation in a 6-by-9-foot cell, until he was released just over two years ago. Now he joins us in studio with his his new memoir, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.

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Video squareStoryMar 29, 201943 Years: Meet the Man Held in Solitary Confinement Longer Than Any Prisoner in U.S. History
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with a man who was held in solitary confinement longer than anyone in U.S. history, for over 43 years, until he won his freedom just over three years ago.

Albert Woodfox is now traveling the world to discuss his new memoir. It’s called Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope. In it, Albert describes his childhood, how his mother struggled to keep the family cared for, how as a young teen and young man he was in and out of jail and prison, and how he became radicalized when he met members of the Black Panther Party, and went on to establish the first chapter of the organization at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, to address the horrific conditions at the former cotton plantation.

Not long after this, he and fellow prisoner Herman Wallace were accused in 1972 of stabbing prison guard Brent Miller to death. The two men always maintained their innocence, saying they were targeted because of their political activity. Woodfox, Wallace and a third man, Robert King, became collectively known as the Angola 3. For decades, Amnesty International and other groups campaigned for their release.

Well, after being held in isolation in a 6-by-9-foot cell almost continuously for 43 years, Albert Woodfox was released on his 69th birthday—that was February 19th, 2016—after he entered a plea of no contest to charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary.

He’s joining us here in our New York studio to continue to discuss his remarkable new memoir, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.

Thanks so much for staying to continue this conversation, Albert. When you got out of jail, the first thing you did was go to your mother’s grave.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: When did she die?

ALBERT WOODFOX: She died in ’94, December. And, you know, it was—

AMY GOODMAN: More than 20 years before you got out.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. It was—you know, in the African-American household, it is always coming to terms with the loss of someone in the family, when you can say that final goodbye, when you can say from your heart and your soul, you know, “I love you, and I’ll miss you, but I’ll never forget you.” And so I was denied that right. I was denied the right to go to my mom’s wake or funeral and say that final goodbye. So I had to live with that burden, you know, until the day I was released from prison.

And the same thing with my sister, you know, when I lost my sister in 2002 to cancer. And the lawyers had made arrangements for me to attend the funeral. But on the day that the sheriffs from Orleans Parish come to pick me up, Warden Cain canceled everything. And now, this is a man who projected the image of being a Christian and believing in family and everything, but yet, because of my political beliefs, because they couldn’t break me, because I would never renounce the Black Panther Party as they demanded as a term for being released from solitary confinement, you know, he saw—I guess he saw another opportunity to inflict pain upon me. And so I was denied the right to say goodbye to my sister.

And on the day I was released, you know, we went straight to the graveyard, and the graveyard was closed, because there had been a 2-hour delay in releasing me. I wanted to climb over the fence. And my brother was like, “No, no, no. You know, we’re not having that. You just got out of prison. We’re not going to give these people…” So we left, with a deep heart, and we went and said goodbye to my sister and my brother-in-law, who was also a childhood friend. And the next day, with an abundance of flowers, we went, and I was finally able to lift that burden that I carried for so long.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted, actually, to go to your brother, who you remain close to, Michael Mable.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You remained close to him in prison. He was there to greet you upon—I wanted—sorry, I wanted to go to your brother, Michael Mable, who you remained close to in person and who was there to greet you when you got out in 2016. When you joined us days later on Democracy Now!, he was there, too.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And he described for us how, on those first days after getting out, you visited your mother’s grave.

MICHAEL MABLE: It was—it was closure for him. I periodically always visit my mother’s grave. My mother took her last breath with me holding her hands. And I would always let him know how she went and how much, you know, she continues to look down and know that he’s going to struggle for the right thing in this world. And, you know, him and King and Hooks have always given me strength to go against the world and, you know, don’t matter what happens. It’s that if you continue with hope and strength, and you fight for a right cause, then you can do anything you want.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Michael, your brother. That was just a few days after you got out. Our radio listeners can’t see you sitting next to him. You actually look very different than you do today.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, I have more gray hair.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go back to your time in prison. It’s amazing to me that rather than just leaving it all behind—I mean, it already consumed so many decades of your life—you are spending your life, free, talking about what’s happening inside. I think, to say the least, it’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t gone through this to understand what it means to live in a 6-by-9-foot cell for more than four decades. How did you maintain your sanity? Describe for us being in that cell, what it felt like.

ALBERT WOODFOX: You know, actually, the measurements to the cell are 6 by 9, six feet wide, nine feet long. But there is actually less space available, because you have two bunks attached to the wall that takes up half of the cell, and you have a toilet bowl, face bowl combination on the back wall, and you have an iron table with a bench on the thing. So you have a very narrow pathway in which you can move back, forward in the cell. You know, when you’re first put in solitary confinement, you go through this period where you want to scream, you know, because nothing you can do to fight this. In hindsight, I would say it was probably the early stages of claustrophobia, you know, but it depend on the individual.

As time goes on, you learn to control your emotions, your feeling of being smothered and being confined. And so, but then, you know, when we’re first put in solitary confinement, you could only have like two or three pair of underwear and a T-shirt. And, you know, you couldn’t have books or radios and those things. Those things were gained later as a result of our resistance and organizing and hunger strikes and stuff like that. We won the right to, you know, change.

AMY GOODMAN: What access did you have to reading material, to books?

ALBERT WOODFOX: At that time only a Bible. You had a Bible in each cell. But the thing was that so many other prisoners had gained respect for what we were trying to do, that, you know, they would actually take a chance and sneak us like newspapers and novels and books, like, in there. And as I said, over the decades, as a result of resistance and court cases, filing cases in the court, we slowly began to expand what solitary confinement looked like.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to why you were put in solitary confinement. I mean, you faced like a 50-year sentence for armed robbery, and you were expected to serve like half that time, so you would have been out decades ago. But while you were in prison at Angola, you were charged and convicted of murdering a guard.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Officer Brent Miller, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Brent Miller, along with Herman Wallace. You were two of the Angola 3.

ALBERT WOODFOX: And two other guys. As to why they charged them, I have no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: You always believed they went after you because of your Black Panther activity. In watching documentaries about you, I remember this moment where Brent Miller’s widow Teenie—she’s been identified in different ways—Teenie Rogers, Teenie Verret—said she was convinced you couldn’t have been—you and Herman Wallace were not the people who killed her husband. Before I ask you about your visit with her when you were released, I want to play a clip of Teenie. She was just 17 when her husband, Officer Miller, was stabbed to death in 1972. She was interviewed in a documentary in 2010, In the Land of the Free.

TEENIE ROGERS: I’ve been living this for 36 years. There’s not a year that goes by that I don’t have to relive this. And it just keeps going and going. And then these men, I mean, if they did not do this—and I believe that they didn’t—they have been living a nightmare for 36 years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Brent Miller’s widow. She’s talking while you were in jail, and you would be in jail for years to come after that. You actually visited her after you got out of prison?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. We had dinner together, yeah. You know, our respect for Teenie Miller is unbound, because it took a lot of courage for her to do what she did, to come out. But, in a sense, she was as great a victim as we were, because she had been lied to all this time about Brent’s death. She had not been told about the bloody fingerprint that was identifiable, the scrapings from underneath his fingernails that didn’t match. You know, none of the physical evidence that they accumulated matched any of us, particularly Herman and I, to Brent Miller’s death. And she had never been made aware of this. But in the process of our attorneys trying to build a defense for us, she was contacted and agreed to talk with, you know, the investigators. And the investigators said that she was very shocked by some of the things that were being discussed.

And so, after getting the facts, she came to the conclusion on her own that Herman and I was innocent. And she actually tried to visit us. Of course, they wouldn’t let it happen. You know, especially when Herman was—you know, had been diagnosed with liver cancer, she actually tried to go to Hunt and visit him. And, of course, you know, she she was denied. And, you know, she was the victim of scorn and hate and everything from not only the prison security staff, but from Brent Miller’s family, as well, because, you know, she did what the Miller family refused to do, and that was to look at the facts, look at the evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is what got you in solitary confinement?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, his death, yeah. I was actually the very first person that was locked up and placed in the dungeon and the next day transferred to CCR, which is solitary.

AMY GOODMAN: CCR stands for?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Closed cell restrictions. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you had founded the Black Panther Party chapter in Angola before that.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah, and the slave—sex slave move we made.

AMY GOODMAN: And your whole movement against the raping of prisoners.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. It caused us—we got a lot of enemies, you know? And we found out later on that a lot of guys had gave statements and stuff, you know, never accusing us directly, but giving the impression that we we were behind it in some kind of way.

AMY GOODMAN: Albert, you wrote, “My proudest achievement in all my years in solitary was teaching a man to read.”

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you do that? And who was this man?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, his name’s Charles, and we became good friends. And since, you know, my mom couldn’t read or write anything but her name, you know, there’s certain things people that can’t read or write, certain techniques they use and stuff. And so, I picked this up on him. And, you know, the CCR, the cellblock, is 15 men to a cell. And the uniqueness about, I guess, in Louisiana, is the front of the cell is made out of bars. It’s not a completely concrete enclosed cell. So, I just asked him one day. I said, “Man, you know, don’t get mad, but can you read and write?” And he said, you know, “No, I can’t.” And I just told him. I said, “Well, I can help you learn how to read and write, but you’ve got to really want it. You’ve got to want this badder than anything.”

And so I used the dictionary, starting off. You know, in dictionaries, at the bottom of each page, there’s a sound key on how you pronounce words, as to how they’re spelled. And I taught him about, you know, vowels and adjectives, and, you know, just basically, I teached him to shape words. And he really wanted it, you know, because I told him—I said, you know, “Any time, I don’t care what, night or day, you hit a wall, you call me.” And he called me 2 or 3 in the morning, you know, and “I can’t pronounce this word.” And so I would ask him to spell it, and then I’d remind him of, you know, the voice key at the bottom of the page and how you pronounce alphabets, and help him, you know, think.

AMY GOODMAN: He was in solitary, too.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah, he was about three or four cells down from me.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you communicate? How did you communicate with other people on solitary?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, you talk, holler up and down the tier. You know, this is one of the ways I developed the habit of waking up in the very early a.m., because the tier stops showering. There’s no noise. The doors are not opening and closing. And, you know, so you are able to really concentrate on what you’re doing. So, even now, you know, I wake up 3, 3:30 in the morning, and this is when I do most of my reading. I still read, try to read at least two hours a day. So, there are some things, habits that I developed in prison, I still try to hold onto.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re a busy man, once you’ve gotten out of prison and now on your book tour. You’re headed to Canada, and you have to leave in a few minutes. But I wanted to ask you about how you have adjusted since getting out of prison, starting with the small things. You write about this in a very graphic way, even the use of your hands. Explain.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, in solitary confinement, every time we leave your cell, you’re put in restraints. And they usually restrain your hands to your front of your body or on the side, and so you don’t have free access. You notice, in some humans, then others, you know, hand expressions when you talk and you move your hand. So, you know, having had my hands strapped to my stomach or to my side for, you know, four decades, when I was released—

AMY GOODMAN: But in solitary you’re not shackled.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah, every time we leave the cell. Any time you leave a cell in solitary, you’re put in restraints. So, my first encounter without having restraints is when I was placed, in '98, in the Amite City jail—no, rather, ’96, when I discharged. And they don't use restraints there. And I just didn’t know what to do with my hands. You know, I didn’t know. Actually, there was a time when I used to keep my hands folded in front of me, because of the comfort. You know, I had done this—lived with this for so long, it was a comfortable position. Yeah, so I would actually—

AMY GOODMAN: Almost as if you were shackled.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. I would cross my—you know, intertwine my fingers and hold them to my stomach. And when I was—when I got out, I felt very uncomfortable with people moving around me, because in CCR you only had to defend the front of your cell, because you had two walls and the back, so no one could get around you. And so, when I will go onto community events and stuff like that, you know, people have a tendency—they read about you, and they actually start feeling like they know you. So, people would come up, you know, and they would pat me on the shoulder or on the back. Somebody even bear-hugged me. And it took all the discipline that I had developed in the decades of solitary not to just explode, you know, because to have someone come up behind you, in prison that is deadly. You know, you spend a great deal of time in prison trying not to let anyone get behind you, because most attacks in prison, that’s where they come from, from behind. And so, that was probably my biggest adjustment, you know, being—getting accustomed to people moving all around me and people coming up behind me and patting me on the back or hugging me.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about walking? When your hands are shackled, your legs are also shackled, right?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did it feel to be able to walk freely?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, at first, you measure your steps, just like, you know, when you have shackles on, you can only step so far. So, when I first got out, I would take like, I guess you could use the term, baby steps, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Sort of shuffling.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. And over a period of time, you know, you adjust. And one of the reasons I think that helped me survive is, I had developed the ability to adjust very quickly. So, whenever things change, you know, rather than resist, which most people do because change means unfamiliarity and stuff, you know, I would adjust to that change almost instantaneously. And so, you know, that’s pretty much how I learned, or I had—you know, I guess you can use the term: I learned how to walk again. You know. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: And you also talk about your hands, not only where you place them, but how you use them, like, for example, using a cellphone and what it meant for your fingers to be working in a different way.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. You know, like I say, you pretty much have to learn a new physical way of moving and doing things, when you’ve been shackled for four decades plus.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you suing over your confinement, solitary confinement, for over four decades?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, in 2001, Herman, Robert and I filed a suit challenging long-term cell confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: Herman Wallace, Robert King and you, the Angola 3.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. Unfortunately, the conditions of the suit, I can’t comment any further than that. But—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s in process now?

ALBERT WOODFOX: No, it was settled. It was settled. But part of the conditions was keep your mouth shut, you know? But I can say that there have been some changes. You know, not nowhere near what they should be, because solitary should be ended. You know, the purpose of solitary confinement is to destroy human spirit, to destroy your sense of self-worth, to destroy your sanity, you know. And so, you know, it serves no purpose. It’s still very—used very heavily, you know, in the prison systems across this country. So, you know, in certain—

AMY GOODMAN: Certain states now, right?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Including New York, are considering limiting solidarity confinement.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Limiting, yeah. But let me—you know, and maybe this is because I know the horrors of solitary confinement. I’ve heard terms like, you know, “no longer than 15 days.” And, you know, for me, one day in solitary confinement is too much. So, I understand that stuff changes gradually, you know, so this is a progressive move. I support, you know, the effort out there to end solitary or to severely limit its use. But the end goal is to end the use of it altogether.

AMY GOODMAN: Albert, you write, “If there’s a moral to my story, it’s that salvation comes with the will to be a better human being.” You say you wouldn’t change your life because everything made you the man you are today.

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. You know, that’s one of the questions I’ve been asked a lot: What would I change? And without thought, you know, I say, “Well, I wouldn’t change anything, because everything that happened to me helped me become the human being I am now, the man I am now,” yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You also write, “It has been my experience that because of institutional and individual racism, African Americans are born socially dead and spend the rest of their lives fighting to live.”

ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes. I think that’s apparent in this country, and even more so now with—we have a president who has openly admitted that he’s a white supremacist. So, yeah, yeah, I don’t think—you know, one of the things, when I got out, people would ask me, you know, “What about the change, the change?” But I didn’t sense a change. At least I’ll say this: I didn’t sense a deep-rooted change. You know, the change in America was superficial. And I thought it was pathetic that the same conditions that I left in society almost 50 years still exist. Racism had put on a shirt and a tie and a jacket, and codes were used rather than blatant, in-your-face type of racism that I had faced in my youth. But it was still the same.

AMY GOODMAN: What did having the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama, mean to you?

ALBERT WOODFOX: On a personal level, of course, being African-American, you know, there was a certain pride. But politically, realistically, I didn’t think he would be any different from any other president. You know, the system, the political system in this country, is built [inaudible] go back for hundreds of years. And I’ve seen it time and time again. Politicians go to D.C. with the best of intentions, but they are overwhelmed, and eventually they become just another politician. So, you know, I figured Mr. Obama would do things differently, but I didn’t think the end results would be any different, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Your final—

ALBERT WOODFOX: And—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

ALBERT WOODFOX: No, and I think, you know, I mean—and my personal opinion is that the first four years of his presidency was wasted, because he truly believed in apartisan politics and reaching across the aisle to try to form a consensus, and the Republican Party stated that they would spend the next four years making sure that his presidency failed.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final thoughts, as you go out into the world, now to Canada—the weekend of May 4th and 5th, you’ll be in Berkeley at the Bay Area Book Festival—as you travel the world taking advantage of every moment in the free world?

ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, you know, my hope has always been for a better humanity and to try to be a part of that, to try to say something or do something that will make, if it’s no more than one human being, stop and think and, you know, start a dialogue that can leave into—that can change into a movement. You know, I’ve always said that one individual can cause chaos; mass movements can cause change. So, you know, I still firmly believe in that.

And so, that’s—you know, Robert and I and Herman, you know, when we were in prison, the one thing we always noticed is that we didn’t have a voice. And because of the men and women and children that were hidden behind the walls of prison and in solitary, nobody knew what we looked like. So we had made a vow that we would be the voice of those men and women and children, and we would be the face.

You know, I think what people in America and around the world have to realize, that prisoners don’t come from another planet. They come from your family. They come from homes. And they might make mistakes. Usually, the economic system brings depression. And, you know, I mean, I know that there is a very small percentage of human beings who do some horrible things, you know, but the overwhelming majority—you know, you come from a family. You don’t come from an alien planet. And they need to, you know, remember that. And they need to love them and support them, you know, because prisons or any state institution, without oversight and without consequences, unchecked power corrupts. And that’s the situation you have in prisons in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Albert Woodfox, the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the United States, held in isolation in a 6-by-9-foot cell almost continuously for 43 years, released in 2016, three years ago, has just published his memoir, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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