Albert Woodfox, who was held in solitary confinement longer than any prisoner in U.S. history, has died at the age of 75 due to complications tied to COVID-19. The former Black Panther and political prisoner won his freedom six years ago after surviving nearly 44 years in solitary over a wrongful murder conviction of a prison guard. Fellow imprisoned Panthers Herman Wallace and Robert King were also falsely accused of prison murders, and they collectively became known as the Angola 3. Democracy Now! interviewed Albert Woodfox in his first live TV interview just three days after his 2016 release, and multiple times afterward. “I’m just trying to learn how to be free,” Woodfox said. “I’ve been locked up so long in a prison within a prison.” Woodfox went on to write his memoir, “Solitary,” and continued to fight for prison reform after his release.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Albert Woodfox, who was held in solitary confinement longer than any prisoner in U.S. history, has died at the age of 75 due to complications of COVID-19. The former Black Panther and political prisoner won his freedom six years ago after surviving nearly 44 years in solitary confinement. He helped establish the first chapter of the Black Panther Party at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to address horrific conditions at the former cotton plantation.
In 1972, he and a fellow imprisoned Panther, Herman Wallace, were falsely accused of stabbing prison guard Brent Miller to death. Woodfox and Wallace always maintained their innocence and said they were targeted for their organizing with the Black Panthers. Miller’s own widow would later urge the state of Louisiana to free Albert Woodfox, after she became convinced he was innocent. Woodfox, Wallace and a third Black Panther, Robert King, were collectively known as the Angola 3. For decades, Amnesty International and other groups campaigned for their release. Robert King was freed in 2001. Herman Wallace was freed in 2013, only after a federal judge threatened to jail the warden of Angola prison if he refused to release him that day. Herman Wallace died one day after his release, of liver cancer. But the state of Louisiana continued to refuse to release Albert Woodfox. He was eventually freed on his 69th birthday, February 19th, 2016.
Three days after his release, Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz and I interviewed Albert Woodfox in his first live TV interview.
AMY GOODMAN: Albert Woodfox, can you talk about your plans today? You’ve walked out of the prison. You haven’t been free in 45 years. What are you most struck by? What are your greatest challenges now or your moments of joy since Friday?
ALBERT WOODFOX: For me, you know, as strange as it may sound, when I was in prison, I had established who I was and ways to fight for what I believed in. Being released into society, I am having to learn different techniques, you know, of how to — I’m just trying to learn how to be free. I’ve been locked up so long in a prison within a prison. So, for me, it’s just about learning how to live as a free person and just take my time. Right now the world is just speeding so fast for me, and I have to find a way to just slow it down and, you know, just enjoy my family. That’s been a great source of energy.
Being able to sit down with King and laugh and touch him, and he touch me, and hug each other and stuff is, you know, grateful. He has been a man that ever since he walked out of prison, he has spent the last 15 or more years of his life fighting for — to get me and Herman out. And, you know, there are very few human beings who have shown the character and the strength and the determination as my friend and comrade, Robert King. …
You know, the Black Panther Party may not exist, but we still exist. And we continue to — we will continue to struggle to free some of our comrades, and to, you know, stand shoulder to shoulder and try to take on all of the injustices that we can that goes on in America every day.
RENÉE FELTZ: Albert, it’s so great to have you join us. Can you explain the significance of going to visit your mother’s gravesite and why that was the first place that you wanted to go?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, when my mom passed away, I had made a request to go to her funeral and say my final goodbye. Warden Burl Cain denied that request. And the same thing happened with my sister when she passed away. My family and friends had made arrangements to allow me to go and say goodbye. Again, Warden Burl Cain denied that. So, for some years now, there has always been this emptiness when it came to my mom and my sister, because I never had a chance to say a final goodbye. And so, that’s why it was important that one of my first acts of being free was to relieve that burden off of my soul.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Albert Woodfox speaking on Democracy Now! February 22nd, 2016, three days after his release after over 40 years in solitary confinement.
Following his release, Albert would go on to spend years speaking out against solitary confinement while campaigning for the release of other political prisoners. He also wrote a remarkable memoir with Leslie George titled Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope. The memoir won an American Book Award and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2019, Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I interviewed Albert Woodfox in our New York studio after the publication of the book.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you feel today? How have you adjusted, after 43 years in prison?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, hopeful. You know, Rob and I still travel around, across America and outside of America, to talk about solitary confinement, which we believe is the most horrible and brutal nonphysical attack upon a human being by another human being. Throughout my four decades-plus of solitary confinement, I’ve watched men go insane, I’ve watched men physically hurt themselves, you know, trying to deal with the pressure of being confined to a 9-by-6 cell 23 hours out of every 24-hour period.
And being free now, I still suffer, you know, claustrophobic attacks. I’m able to address them better now because my physical movement is beyond nine feet now. And so, you know, I can walk in my house. I can go in the backyard of my house. I can go on the sidewalk, or there’s a park, which I often visit, a block and a half away from my house. So, the only remedy for me when I had claustrophobic attacks was the space. So this has made it easier to deal with those attacks.
AMY GOODMAN: And you write, “Gassing prisoners was the number one response by security to deal with any prisoner at Angola who demanded to be treated with dignity. … In the seventies we were gassed so often every prisoner in CCR almost became immune to the tear gas.” You were being gassed in solitary confinement?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. Well, you know, the sergeants were provided with these little — it’s like a little deodorant can. And if you would try to get a certain, like, more toilet paper, or you complained about the toilet in your cell not working, you know, and if the officers didn’t like the way you were talking, or if you were trying to defend yourself from being handled in a disrespectful manner and stuff, they would squirt the gas in your face, you know? And usually that would be followed by — they would come into your cell and beat you and handcuff you, then bring you and put you in what’s called the dungeon.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the book, you describe, very graphically, the situation at Angola when you first got there, before you were in solitary, and the rampant rapes that were occurring in the prison. And once you became politically conscious and you were returned there, you talk about how you insisted that on your — in your section, that there was going to be no more rapes. Talk about that and the impact that your political organizing had on the way you dealt with your fellow prisoners.
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, the incident that started the prison chapter of the party to form anti-rape squads was, I was in my dormitory — I was housed in Hickory 4 at that time — and this young kid was assigned a bed across from me. And the saddest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life is to look at another human being and see that his spirit has been shattered. And this kid, you know, he was just sitting there, and I could see tears rolling out of his eyes. And, you know, I always have believed that, in life, an individual incident raises your level of consciousness. And so, once your level of consciousness is raised, you become aware of whatever conditions, individuals. And so, how you respond to that, you know, is pretty much determined on that level of conscious. And I think at that moment that I said, “I can no longer accept this. I can no longer tolerate this.”
So, the next day, I had a talk with Herman Wallace. And we used to go out on the football field. That’s how we used to have our meetings, like we were practicing football, throwing the football around and having political discussions and stuff. And so we discussed with the other members about the rape and slave trade that was going on in Angola. And so we decided to start providing protection for these kids coming in, to let them know that they had other options, other than being made victims.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you maintain your sanity, 44 years in solitary confinement?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, I think the fact that, you know, I was a member of the Black Panther Party. I had a political consciousness. I had values and principles instilled by my mom that I grew into. You know, I didn’t realize how much my mom had built and set a foundation in me, even though I was resisting it. And, you know, over the decades, we had programs geared toward making the men better. We had schools. We used to hold schools and political classes. But, you know, as many battles as we won, as many men as we saved, as many men as we helped keep their sanity, we lost twice as many men, you know. And there were times when I had to fight really hard for my own sanity. And I thank the fact that what I was doing.
You know, throughout all this, I developed an unbelievable love for humanity and dedicated myself to doing whatever I can to better humanity. And so, I remember reading something from Mr. Mandela, and he said, “If a cause is noble, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.” And I thought what we were doing was a noble cause. So we were prepared. And so the beatings and the gassings and the decades of solitary confinement, you know, was really — although painful and difficult, it never got to the point where they were able to break us.
AMY GOODMAN: 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: 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 how 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 in 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: Your final thoughts, as you go out into the world, 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: Former Black Panther Albert Woodfox, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2019 shortly after the publication of his award-winning book, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope. He died Thursday of COVID at the age of 75. We’ll speak to his loved ones after break.
AMY GOODMAN: “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, a favorite of Albert Woodfox.