Sunday, February 21, 2016

For 45 Years in Prison, Louisiana Man Kept Calm and Held Fast to Hope
New York Times
FEB. 20, 2016

Albert Woodfox, 69, spent 45 years in state custody, nearly all of it in solitary at Louisiana State Penitentiary, called Angola. Credit Bryan Tarnowski for The New York Times

NEW ORLEANS — A hotel door, a short elevator ride, a stroll through the lobby and the urge to take a walk were all that separated Albert Woodfox from the great wide world.

This had been the case only for less than 24 hours.

On Friday morning, Mr. Woodfox, who had just turned 69, was released from prison as part of a plea deal with Louisiana prosecutors. He pleaded no contest before a state judge to charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary in the 1972 death of a corrections officer. In return, he turned his back on the 45 years he had spent in Louisiana’s custody, nearly all that time in a 50-square-foot cell, perhaps the longest time in solitary confinement of any prisoner in United States history.

Now on Saturday morning, he was sitting in a hotel suite alongside one of his brothers and members of the legal team that had worked for years for his release. He was calm, composed, steady as a surgeon, but one imagines that survival would have been impossible without this sort of disposition.

“I don’t think I ever felt that I would die in prison,” Mr. Woodfox, who is black, said. But he acknowledged: “As the years passed, it became more difficult to feel that way.”

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, the 18,000-acre prison in an elbow of the Mississippi River, is known familiarly as Angola. This was the name for the cotton plantation that once occupied the same grounds, itself named for the part of Africa where the plantation’s slaves had come from. It is the largest maximum-security prison in the country, and in the early 1970s it was possibly the bloodiest.

“Almost every day, somewhere in the prison, somebody was getting stabbed or killed or beat with an iron pipe,” Mr. Woodfox recalled.

When Mr. Woodfox arrived at Angola in 1971, it was his second time there. Raised by a barmaid in New Orleans, he had taken to the street life and had the lengthy criminal résumé to show for it.

Two years earlier, already facing a 50-year sentence for armed robbery, Mr. Woodfox escaped from the Orleans Parish courthouse using a smuggled pistol and made his way to New York City. Before long, he was in jail there, too, awaiting extradition but also becoming a part of the Black Panther Party, which was growing in the nation’s jails.

When he returned to Angola, he was a different sort; his fellow inmates at first laughed at his new talk of politics and revolution. But prison officials referred to him as a militant, he said, and kept him on what was known as “the Panther Tier,” where he organized protests of prison conditions.

The morning of April 17, 1972, Mr. Woodfox said, he was on his way back from picking up some papers from an inmate paralegal when rumors began spreading that a white corrections officer had been murdered. Guards pulled Mr. Woodfox and other inmates into a room where they were strip-searched. After a night in a solitary cell called “the dungeon,” Mr. Woodfox and a fellow Black Panther, Herman Wallace, were charged with murder and sent to the one-man cells where they would spend the next four decades.

The officer who had been killed was Brent Miller, a former standout high school wide receiver who had just turned 23. At the time, his father also worked at Angola, overseeing the crops and livestock and his brother was a corrections officer at the prison. Brent Miller knew the prison was overcrowded, understaffed and dangerous — another officer had been set on fire the day before. When Brent Miller was found on the morning of the 17th, he had been stabbed 32 times.

“Do I believe he did it?” Stan A. Miller, another of Brent Miller’s brothers who at one time worked at the prison, too, said when asked about Mr. Woodfox. “Hell yeah, I believe he did it.” Mr. Miller said an eyewitness told him as much in 1995.

Still, that witness, Leonard Turner, testified in 1998 that he had not seen the murder and then in 2002 signed a statement for Mr. Woodfox’s lawyers saying that he did see the murder but that he knew “for an absolute fact” that Mr. Woodfox had not been involved.

Mr. Turner’s is only one of the problematic witness accounts on which the case rested; no forensic evidence was found that tied Mr. Woodfox or Mr. Wallace to the murder. Mr. Woodfox’s lawyers highlighted not only the inconsistency of the accounts but also incentives that in some cases were undisclosed by prosecutors before trial: an unusual furlough for one witness, a governor’s pardon for another and for one, a transfer to a custody situation with such minimal security that he was able to rob three banks while still under state supervision.

Mr. Miller’s widow eventually came to doubt the guilt of Mr. Woodfox and Mr. Wallace, creating something of a break with her former in-laws, who remain convinced that he did it.

At a 1973 trial, Mr. Woodfox was convicted. Mr. Wallace was convicted the next year. And so they sat, alone.

State prosecutors have pushed back at the description of Mr. Woodfox’s confinement as “solitary.” For most of his time at Angola he was kept alone in a cell, 6 feet by 8 or 9 feet with bars on one end, allowing limited conversation with other inmates when the industrial fans did not drown out all talk. He was allowed out for one hour a day.

Former inmates said it would be impossible to describe this as anything other than solitary.

“I’ve seen grown men turn into babies — you know, they just lay in their bed in a fetal position and don’t talk,” Mr. Woodfox said. “I’ve seen guys who can’t stop talking. I’ve seen guys that scream all day.”

“ “You play this game: ‘I’m Superman, there’s nothing you can do to hurt me.’ Then at night time when the lights are out and everybody’s sleeping, you sit down and cry or whatever and you realize, ‘I’ll survive another day.’ ”

In a 2008 filing about bail, the state laid out its case for labeling Mr. Woodfox a “dangerous inmate.” Six incidents over the preceding two decades were listed, including hollering and shaking the bars of his cell in 2002 and threatening to start a hunger strike in 1999. In none of the cases was anyone hurt, though officials said in 1992 that he had been found with the makings of a homemade spear. (George Kendall, a lawyer for Mr. Woodfox, said it had been made of paper.)

Mr. Woodfox did calisthenics in the morning, and in the afternoon he wrote letters and read newspapers, law books and political literature — Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, James Baldwin. Little about his day changed, even in recent years when the outside world learned of him, Mr. Wallace and Robert King, a third inmate who spent a long stint in solitary. The men collectively became known as the “Angola Three.” Mr King was ordered released in 2001.

In 1992, Mr. Woodfox’s conviction was thrown out on the ground that he had not had effective assistance of counsel. He was convicted at a second trial in 1998, though that conviction was overturned in 2013 because of discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreman.

Mr. Wallace’s conviction was overturned the same year on similar grounds. Dying of lung cancer, Mr. Wallace was ordered released by a federal judge.

“He died three days later,” Mr. Woodfox said, his voice breaking. “But he died a free man.”

Mr. Woodfox was indicted last February for a third time. So the preparation for a trial — one in which all the key witnesses were dead — began again. But the election of a new state attorney general in November restarted negotiations, leading to Friday’s plea agreement. It counts as a conviction, but is not an admission of guilt, something that angers the Miller family.

“They lied to us,” Stan Miller said of the state attorney general’s office.

When someone is in a cell for four decades he measures things differently: time, certainly, but also freedom. Asked to recall his last trip as a free man, as a 22-year-old on the run to New York, Mr. Woodfox said he did not remember it as a feeling of freedom. True freedom he discovered much later, he said, after years of reading of brave men.

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

The interview ended, and Mr. Woodfox asked about his little brother, who had stepped out for a moment. Together they were planning to visit their mother’s grave. A flash underneath the sleeve of Mr. Woodfox’s jacket revealed a gift that his brother had given him a few hours earlier to celebrate his first morning as a free man in 45 years: a watch.

Allen M. Johnson Jr. contributed reporting from East Feliciana Parish, La.

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