Albert Woodfox was released six years ago after spending nearly 44 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, much of it based on a dubious conviction in the death of a prison guard. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Albert Woodfox, the prison activist and member of the Angola 3 whose memoir “Solitary” was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, died Thursday (Aug. 4) at Ochsner Baptist Hospital after contracting the COVID-19 virus. He was 75.
The death was confirmed by his brother.
Woodfox, who was released six years ago, spent nearly 44 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, much of it based on a dubious conviction in the death of a prison guard. Woodfox’s time in solitary is said to be the longest span endured by anyone on Earth.
For years, even while he lived in his 6-foot-by-9-foot cell, under lockdown 23 hours a day, Woodfox worked to ensure that no one else would suffer the same fate.
“He became the face of solitary confinement. Even while he was within that box, he was like a beacon, focusing a light on that issue,” said Wilbert Rideau, 80, who edited the Angolite, the award-winning prison magazine. “And he had an impact. To the extent that solitary has been reduced in this country, that’s because of the Woodfox effect.” “Albert gave his life to the struggle,” said Robert Hillary King, 80, the last surviving member of the Angola 3. “That was his legacy. He realized that he had to do that to gain the dignity that he, and all the people who looked like him, wanted.”
In recent decades, King said, as awareness grew about Woodfox’s case, it brought increased national scrutiny about solitary confinement and its effects, particularly on juveniles, a practice that is now banned or limited in 23 states. In Louisiana, the state Legislature passed a bill in June limiting isolation to one carefully monitored 24-hour period for youth and only be used where there is an extreme threat to life.
“The pebble he threw into the pond did more than ripple. It caused a tidal wave,” King said.
Over the past few weeks, as Woodfox’s friends gathered at the hospital, they reminisced about a life that represents both tragedy — because his confinement left him with chronic health conditions that made him much more susceptible to the ravages of COVID — and triumph over four decades of the worst punishment the prison system could dole out.
“I think part of the conversation now becomes: did more than 40 years in solitary confinement contribute to his demise? I would say it did,” said Norris Henderson, 69, founder of the group VOTE, Vote Of The Experienced. “Despite his health, Albert prospered, even in that short window he had,” Henderson said. “He took the lemons that life gave him and he not only made lemonade, he made lemon pie and everything else.”
No one was able to break his spirit, Woodfox wrote in his memoir, which was penned with his partner, the journalist and documentarian Leslie George. Or, as he put it, “I have witnessed the horrors of man’s cruelty to man. I did not lose my humanity. I bear the scars of beatings, loneliness, isolation and persecution. I am also marked by every kindness.”
Upon Woodfox’s arrival at Angola in 1971, he and other fellow members of the Black Panther Party worked alongside the prison’s Muslim community to change the prison’s bloody reputation and predatory rape culture.
“This was at the height of Black consciousness and that’s what the Panthers represented: being your brother’s keeper. They taught, ‘All we got is each other,’” said Henderson, who met Woodfox in 1971 when the two of them were being held in Orleans Parish Prison. By that time, Woodfox was a seasoned burglar and armed robber and had served time in Angola once before.
In 1969, as he was found guilty of robbing a bar called Tony’s Green Room and sentenced to 50 years, he stood in Orleans Parish Criminal Court with a smuggled Luger pistol hidden in his pants, which had been hidden by a friend in a nearby bathroom. After his sentencing, he brandished the weapon to force his way out of custody, in a bold escape that made headlines and topped newscasts.
A friend drove him to Mississippi. From there, took a bus, via Atlanta, to New York City, where he first met people who were active with the Black Panther Party. “I’d never seen Black people proud and unafraid like that before,” he wrote.
But he was soon arrested after being set up by a bookie and did a stint under a false identity in the Manhattan House of Detention, known as The Tombs, the notorious New York City jail. There, he met more Panthers, who emphasized learning and kindness to others and also staged a protest about court delays, overcrowding, brutality, and squalid conditions. By the time Woodfox’s real identity was discovered through fingerprints and he was flown home to New Orleans, he had shifted his focus toward the Panthers’ ultimate goals: freedom, land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
“It was as if a light went on in a room inside me that I hadn’t known existed,” he wrote in his memoir.
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In 1971, 20 months after he’d escaped, he arrived back at OPP with a police escort, after being extradited from New York City. Before he was shipped off to Angola, he took an oath to become an official member of the Black Panther Party.
At the state penitentiary, officials were fearful of both the Black Panthers and Muslims, which were both considered “militant groups” in correctional parlance.
“We were arming people not with weapons but with knowledge,” Henderson said. “But prison administrations don’t approve of organizing. They fear that you’re organizing against them.”
Woodfox, with his distinct Afro and unflinching, intellectual manner, was viewed as a troublemaker by wardens and a hero by fellow prisoners. Gary Tyler, 64, who was 17 when he walked onto Angola’s Death Row, recalled how Woodfox checked himself into the dungeon shared by Death Row inmates and those sentenced to solitary. “He laid on the concrete, talking to me, telling me everything was going to be OK,” Tyler said. “There’s very few words I can use to describe someone who was so caring to me. He helped young men throughout the prison redeem themselves and recognize their own humanity.”
Wardens had long used solitary confinement as a punishment, without much thought, said Rideau. But about 30 years ago in California, a lawsuit about the Pelican Bay prison’s Solitary Confinement Unit forced a closer look at the practice.
After Rideau read about the court case in 1994, he assigned Angolite reporter Lane Nelson to an in-depth story about solitary confinement. Nelson scoured records for several months and published a groundbreaking piece that shed light on the realities of the long-accepted prison punishment. Nelson found that five Louisiana inmates had been locked up in solitary for more than 20 years. Three of them were the celebrated Black Panther Party activists — Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King Wilkerson — who became known as the Angola 3, and were called political prisoners because they had been convicted of trumped-up prison-murder charges and kept isolated in small cells.
“These guys were not in the population for 40 years, but everybody knew about them. They became like our Nelson (Mandela), legends who were held with us, just out of our sight,” Henderson.
Wilkerson, who now goes by the name Robert Hillary King, won his release first, in 2001. After being diagnosed with a terminal liver tumor, Wallace was set free in 2013 after his conviction was overturned. He died three days later. That left Woodfox.
“The first time I went to see him, I didn’t know what to expect,” said George Kendall, director of the public service initiative for the New York law firm Squire Patton Boggs, who also served as pro bono counsel for Wallace. Kendall ended up acting as one of Woodfox’s lawyers for about a dozen years and helped to negotiate the plea that resulted in his release in 2016. Though Woodfox maintained his innocence, the state’s attorney general agreed not to mount a third trial for the 1972 murder of the prison guard, 23-year-old Brent Miller, whose widow had expressed doubt about Wallace’s and Woodfox’s guilt in the case, partly because there was a bloody fingerprint at the scene that didn’t belong to either one of them.
In exchange, Woodfox pleaded no contest to manslaughter and aggravated burglary. Because it was a negotiated plea that came with a settlement on a solitary-confinement lawsuit that provided King and Woodfox with some money for their years of isolation, Kendall describes it as “a freedom plea,” not a guilty plea.
Woodfox had already served enough time to account for those sentences, even when added to the armed-robbery sentence that sent him to Angola. On his birthday in 2016, he was released for time served and got in a blue Mustang owned by his younger brother Michael Mable, who had visited him nearly every month while he was incarcerated. Along the way, they purchased flowers to place on the grave of their mother, Ruby Edwards and sister, Violetta Mable. Often, he would ask his little brother to fix him his favorite meal: smothered potatoes, cream-style corn, and smoked sausage.
“I think I would have gone plumb nuts in that cell,” Mable said. “But I never saw a change in Albert, never had a sense of him losing his mind or feeling weak. I’ve always just seen the strength.
Woodfork set out to write his book. It was his priority.
Jessica Sandoval, who heads the Campaign to Unlock the Box, a national effort to end solitary confinement, said it made a difference. “There are a lot of books on solitary, but his book won so many awards. And you could walk into a bookstore and it would be on the front table,” Sandoval said. “It made the conversation more mainstream. And I think the book really brings to the forefront the kind of torture that solitary is.”
He spoke at prestigious universities and traveled the world, on expert panels. “The only time I saw him express resentment is when he said that he could never appear on a panel with people from the Department of Corrections or its wardens,” said Alanah Odoms, the head of the ACLU of Louisiana, who worked closely with him on criminal-justice issues. “I just wish we all had the opportunity to learn from his quiet resolve,” she said. “When I left him, I felt like I’d spent time with a king or a queen.”
Then the pandemic hit.
As coronavirus lockdowns began, Henderson and Woodfox shared a laugh about people’s complaints about stay-at-home orders. “That’s all we knew,” said Henderson. “Solitude breeds thinkers. Because you’re always reading. I probably read over 1,000 books.”
A dog named Hobo showed up at their door and wouldn’t leave. So, all through the pandemic, he and George and Hobo regularly walked along the levee near their home, getting fresh air and exercise while always staying socially distanced, because he knew he was at risk. Then, in recent weeks, despite being vaccinated and boosted, Woodfox contracted COVID. As he knew it might, the virus hit him hard.
He got fluid in his lungs. It cleared up with medicine, but that aggravated his heart. Once his heart seemed better, his kidney function dwindled. Scans showed that he had developed blood clots and had begun suffering strokes. “All of that Angola-imposed abuse to his body, it came back,” Kendall said.
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Mable, 65, sat next to him for his final weeks. “I told him that I was here, I was present, that I know you’re feeling my spirit, that I would love to see you open your eyes,” said Mable, who said that Woodfox, 10 years his elder, had acted as both his father figure and his brother, even as they were raised in a two-room apartment on North Villere Street in Tremé with an outhouse in the back.
Rideau wondered aloud about what conclusions we should reach about Woodfox’s life. “The story ends how?” he asked. When people suffer that much, is it a happy ending? He did triumph over the conditions he faced in life. And he did it in style. In a positive way that impacted the use of solitary confinement.”
For Rideau, the final verdict must be positive, because Woodfox also “transformed from a street criminal to a person of stature.” Through his struggles, Rideau said, he became an agent of change, a reformer and someone who made you look differently at someone who had made mistakes.
“Ultimately, Albert Woodfox’s life makes you realize that you shouldn’t be too fast to judge somebody. He represents hope, the power of human potential,” Rideau said.
Plans for a memorial are incomplete. Woodfox had only specified that he wanted a small, somewhat small service with his ashes spread over Lake Pontchartrain. “He just wants people to remember him in their hearts,” said Mable, who felt that request first-hand. “As long as my heart ticks, he ticks.”
Beyond his partner Leslie George, his brother Michael Mable, who resides in Houston, and three other brothers, James Mable of Detroit, Mich., and Haywood Mable and Donald Mable, both of New Orleans; a daughter, Brenda Poole; three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren and a host of nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews.
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