Albert Woodfox, survivor of 42 years of solitary confinement, dies at 75

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Albert Woodfox, who spent 42 years in solitary confinement — possibly more time than any other inmate in all of American history — yet gained fame with a memoir declaring his spirit unbroken, died Thursday in New Orleans. He was 75.

His lead attorney, George Kendall, said the cause was Covid-19. Mr Kendall added that Mr Woodfox also had a number of pre-existing organ conditions.

Mr Woodfox was placed in solitary confinement in 1972 after being charged with the murder of Brent Miller, a 23-year-old district attorney. A complicated legal ordeal ensued, including two convictions, both quashed, and three indictments spanning four decades.

The case struck most commentators as problematic. There is no forensic evidence linking Mr Woodfox to the crime, so the authorities’ argument relied on witnesses, who over time were either discredited or found to be unreliable.

“The facts of the case were on his side,” the New York Times editors wrote in a 2014 op-ed about Mr Woodfox.

But Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell saw things differently. “This is the most dangerous person on Earth,” he told NPR in 2008.

Mr. Woodfox’s punishment defied all imagination, not only because of the monotony—he was alone in a six-by-nine-foot cell for 23 hours a day—but also because of the pain and humiliation. He was gassed and beaten, he wrote in a memoir, “Solitary” (2019), describing how he kept his sanity and dignity while locked up alone. He was searched with unnecessary, brutal frequency.

His plight first gained national attention when he became known as one of the “Angola Three,” men who were held continuously for decades in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly referred to as Angola, after a slave plantation that was once the site occupied.

In 2005, a federal judge wrote that the time the men spent in solitary confinement was “so far beyond” that “nothing seemed remotely comparable in the annals of American case law.”

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Mr Woodfox would spend more than a decade in solitary confinement before becoming the last of three men to be released from prison in 2016.

His first stint in Angola came in 1965, after he was convicted of a series of petty crimes committed as a teenager. Prison was notoriously harsh, even to the point of slavery. Black inmates, like Mr. Woodfox, did the fieldwork by hand, supervised by white prison guards on horseback, guns in their laps. New inmates were often taken into a regime of sexual slavery encouraged by guards.

Released after eight months, he was soon charged with car theft, leading to another eight months in Angola. He then embarked on a dark criminal career, beating and robbing people.

In 1969, Mr. Woodfox was convicted again, this time for armed robbery, and sentenced to 50 years. By this time, a seasoned lawbreaker, he managed to sneak a pistol into the courthouse where he was convicted and escape. He fled to New York City and landed in Harlem.

A few months later he was incarcerated again, this time in the Tombs, the prison in Manhattan, where he spent about a year and a half.

It turned out to be a turning point, he wrote in his memoir. At the Tombs, he met members of the Black Panther Party, who ran his cells not by force, but by sharing food. They held discussions and treated people with respect and intelligence, he wrote. They argued that racism was an institutional phenomenon that infected police forces, banks, universities and juries.

Credit…via Leslie George

“It was like a light went on in a room inside me that I didn’t know existed,” wrote Mr. Woodfox. “I had morals, principles and values ​​that I never had before.”

He added: “I would never be a criminal again.”

He was sent back to Angola in 1971, thought to be a reformed man. But his harshest criminal conviction — for murdering the Angola corrections officer in 1972, which he denied — was still before him, and with it four decades in solitude, a term only broken for about a year and a half in the 1990s, while he was waiting for a new trial.

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The other two members of the Angola Three, Robert King and Herman Wallace, were also Panthers, starting the same year as Mr. Woodfox to their solitary confinement in Angola. The three became friends by yelling at each other from their cells. They were “our own inspiration for each other,” wrote Mr Woodfox. In his spare time, he added, “I’ve turned my cell into a university, a debating chamber, a law school.”

He taught a prisoner to read, he said, by instructing him how to make words sound in a dictionary. He told him to yell at him at any hour of the day or night if he didn’t understand something.

Albert Woodfox was born on February 19, 1947 in New Orleans to Ruby Edwards, who was 17. He never had a relationship with his biological father, Leroy Woodfox, he wrote, but for much of his childhood he considered a man who later married his mother, a naval cook named James B. Mable, his “father.”

When Albert was 11, Mr. Mable retired from the Navy and the family moved to La Grange, NC. Mr. Mable, Mr. Woodfox recalled, began drinking and beating Mrs. Edwards. She fled the family home with Albert and two of his brothers and took them back to New Orleans.

As a boy, Albert shopped for bread and preserves when there was no food in the house. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade. His mother owned a bar and occasionally worked as a prostitute, and Albert hated her.

“I allowed myself to believe that the strongest, most beautiful and most powerful woman in my life didn’t matter,” he wrote in his memoir.

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His mother died in 1994 while he was in prison. He was not allowed to attend her funeral.

The first of the Angola Three to be released from prison was Mr King, whose conviction was overturned in 2001. The second, Mr. Wallace, was released in 2013 because he had liver cancer. He died three days later.

In a deal with prosecutors, Mr Woodfox was released in 2016 in exchange for pleading no objection to a manslaughter charge in the 1972 murder. By then, he had been transferred from Angola.

His incarceration was over, the first thing he wanted was to visit his mother’s grave.

“I told her that I was now free and that I loved her,” he wrote. “It was more painful than anything I’ve experienced in prison.”

Mr. Woodfox is survived by his brothers, James, Haywood, Michael and Donald Mable; a daughter, Brenda Poole, from a relationship he had in his teens; three grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and his life partner, Leslie George.

Mrs. George was a journalist who began reporting on Mr Woodfox’s case in 1998 and met him in 1999. They became a couple when he was released from prison.

Mrs. George co-wrote Mr. Woodfox, who was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. In a review in The Times, Dwight Garner called “Solitary” “unusually powerful”; in The Times Book Review, the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams described it as “beyond mere advocacy or even memoir”, belonging more to “the realm of Stoic philosophy”.

After he was released, Mr. Woodfox had to relearn how to walk down stairs, how to walk without leg irons, how to sit without being chained. But in an interview with The Times immediately after his release, he said he had freed himself years before.

“When I started to understand who I was, I considered myself free,” he said. “No matter how much concrete they use to hold me in a certain place, they couldn’t stop my thoughts.”

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