Sunday, February 21, 2016

Albert Woodfox on More Than 40 Years in Solitary: 'I Learned How Strong the Human Spirit Can Be'
Albert Woodfox, who was in solitary confinement for four decades at Angola prison, was released this week. Woodfox was the last remaining member of the "Angola 3." He was back in New Orleans on Saturday, February 20, 2016. (Photo by Chris Granger, | The Times-Picayune)

Chris Granger, | The Times-Picayune
February 20, 2016 at 6:53 PM

The worst part was the panic attacks, said Albert Woodfox, the former Angola prison inmate who had been sentenced to life. They were not constant, but the effects of living for more than 40 years alone in a space about the size of a parking spot for 23 hours a day sometimes seized him in cycles.

The most recent attack took hold when he was transferred from a prison in Homer to a detention center in St. Francisville, he said. "The cell start closing in. The ceiling start coming down," Woodfox, 69, explained Saturday (Feb. 20), in a measured, gravelly voice. Saturday -- the day after his birthday -- marked his second day out from behind bars.

Woodfox said he didn't believe he would actually be released until he walked out the doors of the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center. For the last 20 or so years, after being twice convicted and having both those convictions thrown out, only to be indicted a third time in the same decades-old murder.

"So many years of disappointment ... you just don't believe it's going to happen," he said.

"(I was) trying to push these walls back and the ceiling back with the force of mind."

Woodfox, who grew up in New Orleans' 6th Ward, is believed to have served the most time in solitary confinement of any prisoner in the United States. He was put there the day Brent Miller, a 23-year-old prison guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary, was stabbed to death, on April 17, 1972.  Woodfox was an inmate there, serving time on an armed robbery charge.

He had been awaiting a third trial for Miller's murder in West Feliciana Parish -- where Angola is located -- after having each of his two previous convictions thrown out.

On Friday morning, he pleaded no contest to manslaughter and aggravated burglary as part of an agreement reached with the Louisiana Attorney General's Office. Woodfox was freed that afternoon, on his 69th birthday, after he was sentenced to time already served.

Albert Woodfox pleaded no contest to manslaughter and aggravated burglary and received credit for time served.

Sitting in a cushioned armchair inside a hotel suite in his native New Orleans, Woodfox spoke Saturday about his time in solitary confinement, what helped him survive it mentally, and his hopes for his future in the free world.

The mental fight, he said, was resisting the panic that used to grip him in that 6-by-9 feet cell.

 "You pace, you know. Walk up and down the cell...And you fight the urge to take off all your clothes, ' feel like everything is weighing you down," Woodfox said.

"You go through this psychological self-analysis and then you talking to yourself, and telling yourself that you strong enough...Just trying to push these walls back and the ceiling back with the force of mind."

During one three-year period, Woodfox said the only way he could sleep was sitting up in bed. When he laid down and tried to cover himself, "even if it was just a sheet," he said, "it felt like I was being smothered."

He had no specific plan to stop it, he said, but after three or more years, "one day I just laid down, and went to sleep."

Despite the conditions of his custody, Woodfox said the sufferings helped shape him.

"I had to go through this to be the human being I am now," he said.

Staying focused

The imprisonment of Woodfox and two other inmates, Robert King and the late Herman Wallace received international attention in the two decades or so after they became known as members of the Angola 3. The designation came from supporters  who believed the three men were wrongly convicted of prison murders in retaliation for their political activism inside Angola. The trio led hunger strikes and other demonstrations to oppose inhumane prison conditions, which in the early 1970s, included continued racial segregation, corruption and "systematic prison rape," according to the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3.

Wallace was released in October of 2013, two days before his death from complications of liver cancer.

King, the third member of the Angola 3 who was convicted of killing a fellow inmate, was released from prison in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement after his conviction was overturned. King, who remained active in the campaign to release Woodfox from prison and end the practice of solitary confinement, was there to hug Woodfox when he walked out the jail.

Woodfox said Friday in a statement through his attorney that he had looked forward to proving his innocence at trial, but because of his age and for health reasons, he took the opportunity to strike a deal that would allow him freedom, while not admitting guilt to Miller's murder. That was a key factor in his willingness to agree to the plea, Woodfox said Saturday.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said in a statement Friday the plea amounts to a conviction in Miller's homicide, and that family members of Miller cooperated with his office. Some of Miller's family members, however, disputed that, telling WAFB they did not agree with the deal and were disappointed to see Woodfox walk.

Attempts by NOLA. com | The Times-Picayune Friday and Saturday to reach Miller's family members were unsuccessful.

Woodfox sat mostly still Saturday, sometimes raising a hand to make a point or touch his face. His brother, Michel Mable, had warned Woodfox was feeling overwhelmed. But Woodfox's voice was steady. He's lost his composure only one time since walking out of jail Friday, Woodfox said. It was when he hugged his daughter for the first time.

"That was something," he said, tucking his head into both his fists.

Adjusting to the outside may take some time, he said, but he's doing OK. He recognizes the streets of New Orleans, but the roadway seems narrower as buildings he doesn't recognize have popped up.

Woodfox's daughter, with whom he has only recently started to build a relationship, cooked his requested meal: cream corn, prepared the way his late mother used to make it, with rice and smoked sausage.

He credits the teachings of the Black Panther Party and his bond with Wallace and King for his mental survival through years of solitary confinement, referred to by the Louisiana Corrections Department as "closed-cell restriction."

"It's like we had some kind of magical connection," he said of Wallace and King. "We knew we had to turn outward, and stay connected to society and not become institutionalized."

By "institutionalized",Woodfox explained, he means a state of mind that is only concerned with "cultivating prison culture." Woodfox said the term he and his comrades used to describe their mental focus was, "raising the level of consciousness," about what was going on in the world, outside their physical confinement.

To keep from giving up their minds to the prison, he read about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and other civil  revolutionaries. He read the dictionary, he said, to pass time, and learn how to better express himself.

When Robert King was on his tier, they held political discussions with the rest of the inmates and directed educational classes, teaching some inmates to read and write. They would talk through the prison bars to each other, he said. Woodfox or King would use their hour outside the cell to move around and conduct the instruction.

Woodfox said he believed he and the other members of the Angola 3 were initially locked away in solitary as examples. "They wanted to send a message to the inmate population, 'This is what happens,' even though their belief about who killed Brent Miller was wrong," Woodfox said.

Moreover, Woodfox, Wallace and King also challenged prison conditions, he said, when the administration's message was, "You don't challenge security."

The United Nations, four U.S. congressmen and the New York Times editorial board are among those who have called for the release of Louisiana prisoner Albert Woodfox.

Life outside  

Woodfox still grapples with the attention his case has received. He said he sees himself as an "ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances." While the length of his confinement stands out, he noted the practice of solitary confinement is common.

"A lot of people locked up in (closed-cell restriction)," he said, "But they're broken."

Challenging the constitutionality of solitary confinement is a legacy that has come out of his suffering, Woodfox said. The lawsuit he, Wallace and King filed in 2000 claiming that type of custody amounts to cruel and unusual punishment has gained some attention, and inmates in other prisons have filed similar litigation.

"There's a movement in the country about solitary confinement," Woodfox said, "We think that we were the spark...for that.

Since he's been released, Woodfox said he is "constantly searching his heart" to thank those who helped keep him grounded and secure his release, mainly his family, King and in recent years, his legal team.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond issued a statement after Woodfox's release Friday, saying the confinement of Woodfox and other members of the Angola 3 prompted him to introduce legislation asking the Department of Justice to review the misuse of solitary confinement. Debate over the legislation, he said, led to President Barack Obama's executive order addressing the use solitary in the federal system, which Richmond called "partial victory."

"The story of the Angola 3 has shined a light on one of the most inhumane practices in our criminal justice system," Richmond said in the statement. "What happened to Mr. Woodfox was cruel and I don't think it will ever be easy to understand, but that process will only be eased if we do all we can to ensure that no one else has to endure the same."

Into the future

Now on the outside, Woodfox said, he wants to become a social activist, either joining a cause he can get behind or starting his own organization. But his first priority, he said, is getting to know his family better.

Friday, he met his four grandchildren, the oldest in his early 30s, and his three great-grandchildren. With nearly 45 years to think about life behind bars, Woodfox said he's walking away with some lessons.

"I learned how strong the human spirit can be, that the change has to come from within. I learned that although human beings do horrible things sometimes, they still have worth. And that there should be a certain amount of dignity given to every human being even though they're in prison," he said. "And that's not the way it is now."

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