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Albert Woodfox speaks after 43 years in solitary confinement

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Woodfox, the last member of the so-called Angola 3, was released from Feliciana Parish Jail on Friday, his 69th birthday, after spending 45 years behind bars—43 years and 10 months, or more than 15,000 days, of that time in almost continuous solitary confinement in a 6′ x 9′ cell. Woodfox, who was locked away in solitary for longer than any other prisoner in American history, was freed after he entered a plea of no contest to charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary of a prison guard more than four decades ago. His conviction for murdering a guard at Angola State Penitentiary had previously been overturned three times. The first place Woodfox went after his release was to his mother’s gravesite.

“I need to go say goodbye to my mother—I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral when I was in Angola—and my sister, as well,” he explained to Democracy Now.

In an interview with the Guardian, Woodfox said he made a conscious decision in 1972 that he would survive and not let solitary confinement destroy his mind. It wasn’t easy—solitary confinement is a widely recognized form of torture that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who was held in solitary and brutally tortured as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war for five years, said “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

“We made a conscious decision that we would never become institutionalized,” Woodfox said of the Angola 3. “As the years went by, we made efforts to improve and motivate ourselves. We made sure we always remained concerned about what was going on in society, that way we knew that we would never give up. I promised myself that I would not let them break me, not let them drive me insane.”

Woodfox said not all of his fellow inmates managed to survive solitary with their sanity intact.

“Some of the guys found the pressure so great that they just laid down in a fetal position and stopped communicating with anybody,” he said. “I’ve seen other guys who just want to talk and make noise, guys who want to scream. Breaking up manifests itself in any number of ways in individuals.”

At times, solitary proved too much for Woodfox to handle. He suffered from claustrophobia and panic attacks. For a three-year period, the claustrophobia was so bad that Woodfox felt as if he was being smothered every time he lay down.

“The panic attacks started with sweating,” he told the Guardian. “You sweat and you can’t stop. You become soaking wet—you are asleep in your bunk and everything is soaking wet. Then when the claustrophobia starts it feels like the atmosphere is pressing down on you. That was hard. I used to talk to myself to convince myself I was strong enough to survive, just to hold on to my sanity until the feeling went away.”

The closest Woodfox ever came to losing his mind was when his mother died.

“That was the closest I came to cracking,” he said. “All my strength I inherited from my mom. I was thankful she lived long enough for me to tell her I loved her and that she was my real hero.”

He also said that the release of fellow Angola 3 prisoner Herman Wallace was a very difficult time. Wallace, who suffered from terminal liver cancer, was released from prison in 2013 but died just three days later.

In 1971, Woodfox, who was earlier convicted for armed robbery, was serving a sentence at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a former slave plantation then known as America’s toughest prison. That year, he and fellow inmates Herman Wallace and Robert King formed a chapter of the Black Panthers to combat the rampant rape, sexual slavery, violence and horrific living conditions endemic in the prison. They organized numerous strikes and sit-downs, earning the respect of many of the prison’s black inmates and raising the ire of racist prison officials.

On April 17, 1972, Angola guard Brent Miller was stabbed to death at the prison. Woodfox, Wallace and King—the ‘Angola 3’—were immediately charged with the killing and locked up in solitary confinement. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking the trio to Miller’s murder, and despite the fact that the main eyewitness against the trio was bribed by prison officials, the Angola 3 languished in solitary confinement for decades. Woodfox has always maintained his innocence, claiming he has been wrongfully punished for Miller’s murder because of his political activism.

The other Angola 3 members have both been released from prison. King was freed in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement after his conviction was overturned. Wallace was released in October 2013 after more than 41 years in solitary after a federal court ruled he had not received a fair trial. He died three days later.

Woodfox was tried and convicted twice for Miller’s murder, but courts later overturned both convictions. Woodfox has had two appeal hearings, one in 2008 and another in 2010, which resulted in his conviction being overturned and the full granting of habeas corpus. Judge James Brady ruled in 2008 that Woodfox had not received due process at the 1998 replacement for his deeply flawed 1973 trial, citing ineffective legal counsel and questionable evidence in the case. Woodfox’s attorney had also successfully argued that he could have shown that his client’s conviction was literally bought by the state, whose case was based on the testimony of jailhouse snitches who were compensated for their cooperation.

Judge Brady ordered Woodfox’s conviction and life sentence to be “reversed and vacated,” but Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell appealed the ruling to the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, known as one of the nation’s most conservative, which ruled 2-1 in 2010 that Judge Brady had erroneously overturned Woodfox’s conviction. Last June, Brady issued a ruling ordering Woodfox’s unconditional release, but again the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Brady’s order so the state could appeal.

To this day, Woodfox insists he did not commit the crime for which he spent the majority of his life behind bars.

“I am innocent,” he told the Guardian. “The fact that I was convicted the first and second times had more to do with racism in the American judicial system than with innocence or guilt.”

Woodfox also believes his solitary confinement was politically motivated.

“Our political activities marked us and that’s why they locked us up in solitary confinement, where I remained until yesterday,” he said.

When asked what he planned to do now that he is a free man, Woodfox said he will seek proper medical treatment for numerous health problems and get to know his family again.

“Hopefully I can become a part of my family, and remain socially active,” he told the Guardian, adding that he wants to be a “voice for those who have no voice, be a shield for those who can’t protect themselves.”

Woodfox also vowed to work to bring an end to solitary confinement.

“It’s an evil. Solitary confinement is the most torturous experience a human being can be put through in prison. It’s punishment without ending,” he said. “We have got to stop this, and having been a victim of it for so long myself, that’s what I’m going to do.”

He may have some help. The United Nations has sounded the alarm on the brutal realities of solitary confinement, urging its prohibition in all but the most extreme cases. President Barack Obama recently ordered attorney general Loretta Lynch to conduct a review of solitary confinement in US prisons and banned isolation for juvenile federal inmates.

“The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance,” Obama wrote in a Washington Post editorial announcing the moves. “Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.”

However, the use of solitary confinement remains widespread in US prisons, with as many as 100,000 inmates sent to “disciplinary segregation” or other forms of solitary in 2014, according to an August 2015 Association of State Correctional Administrators-Yale Law School survey.

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