Albert Woodfox, who spent 42 years in solitary confinement – perhaps longer than any other prisoner in all of American history – yet emerged to acclaim with a memoir that declared his spirit unbroken, has died Thursday in New Orleans. He was 75 years old.
His lead attorney, George Kendall, said the cause was Covid-19. Mr Kendall added that Mr Woodfox also suffered from a number of pre-existing organ problems.
Mr Woodfox was placed in solitary confinement in 1972 after being charged with the murder of Brent Miller, a 23-year-old corrections officer. A tangled legal ordeal ensued, including two convictions, both overturned, and three indictments spanning four decades.
The case struck most commentators as problematic. No forensic evidence linked Mr. Woodfox to the crime, so the authorities’ argument depended on witnesses, who over time were discredited or proved unreliable.
“The facts of the case were on his side,” the New York Times editorial board wrote in a 2014 opinion piece about Mr. Woodfox.
But Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell saw things differently. “He’s the most dangerous person on the planet,” he told NPR in 2008.
Mr Woodfox’s punishment defied imagination not only for its monotony – he was alone 23 hours a day in a six-by-nine-foot cell – but also for its agonies and humiliations. He was gassed and beaten, he wrote in a memoir, “Solitary” (2019), in which he described how he maintained his sanity and dignity, while locked away alone. He was strip searched with unnecessary and brutal frequency.
His plight first came to national attention when he became one of the “Angola Three,” men held in continuous solitary confinement for decades at Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, after a planting of slaves who once occupied the site.
In 2005, a federal judge wrote that the length of time the men had spent in solitary confinement was “so unbearable” that there did not appear to be “anything comparable in the annals of American case law”.
Mr. Woodfox would spend more than a decade in solitary confinement before becoming, in 2016, the last of three men to be released from prison.
His first stint in Angola was in 1965, after he was convicted of a series of minor offenses committed as a teenager. Prison was notoriously harsh, even to the point of evoking the days of slavery. Black prisoners, like Mr. Woodfox, worked the field by hand, overseen by white prison guards on horseback with shotguns on their knees. New inmates were often inducted into a regime of sexual slavery encouraged by the guards.
Released after eight months, he was soon charged with car theft, which led to him spending another eight months in Angola. After that, he embarked on a darker criminal career, beating and robbing people.
In 1969, Mr. Woodfox was convicted again, this time of armed robbery, and sentenced to 50 years. By then, a seasoned offender, he managed to sneak a gun into the courthouse where he was sentenced and escape. He flees to New York and lands in Harlem.
A few months later, he was imprisoned again, this time in the Tombs, the Manhattan prison, where he spent about a year and a half.
It turned out to be a turning point, he wrote in his memoirs. At the tombs, he encountered members of the Black Panther Party, who ruled his cell level not by force but by sharing food. They held discussions, treating people with respect and intelligence, he wrote. They argued that racism was an institutional phenomenon, infecting police departments, banks, universities and juries.
“It was like a light going on in a room inside me that I didn’t know existed,” Mr Woodfox wrote. “I had morals, principles and values that I had never had before.”
He added: “I will never be a criminal again.”
He was sent back to Angola in 1971, believing himself reformed. But his most serious criminal conviction – for the murder of the Angolan prison officer in 1972, which he denied – was still ahead of him, and with it four decades of solitary confinement, an interrupted term for only about a year and demi in the 1990s while he pending retrial.
The other two members of the Angola Three, Robert King and Herman Wallace, were also Panthers and began their isolation in Angola the same year as Mr Woodfox. The three became friends by shouting at each other from their cells. They were “our own medium of inspiration to each other,” Mr. Woodfox wrote. In his spare time, he added, “I turned my cell into a university, a debating hall, a law school.”
He taught an inmate to read, he said, by teaching him to pronounce words in a dictionary. He told her to yell at him any time of the day or night if he couldn’t understand something.
Albert Woodfox was born on February 19, 1947 in New Orleans to Ruby Edwards, who was 17 years old. 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 chief named James B. Mable, his “daddy”.
When Albert was 11, Mr. Mable retired from the Navy and the family moved to La Grange, North Carolina. Mr Mable, Mr Woodfox recalled, started drinking and beating Mrs Edwards. She fled the family home with Albert and two of her brothers, bringing them back to New Orleans.
As a child, Albert stole bread and preserves when there was no food in the house. He dropped out of school in 10th grade. His mother ran a bar and occasionally worked as a prostitute, and Albert grew to hate her.
“I allowed myself to believe that the strongest, most beautiful, most powerful woman in my life didn’t matter,” he wrote in his memoir.
His mother died in 1994, while he was in prison. He was not allowed to attend his 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.
As part of a deal with prosecutors, Mr Woodfox was released in 2016 in exchange for pleading uncontested a charge of manslaughter in the 1972 murder. By then he had been transferred out of Angola.
His incarceration over, the first thing he wanted to do was go to his mother’s grave.
“I told her that I was free now and that I loved her,” he wrote. “It was more painful than anything I 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 as a teenager; three grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and his life partner, Leslie George.
Ms 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.
Ms. George co-wrote Mr. Woodfox’s book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. In a review for The Times, Dwight Garner called “Solitary” “exceptionally powerful”; in The Times Book Review, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams described it as “above mere pleading or even memoirs”, belonging more “to the realm of Stoic philosophy”.
After his release, Mr. Woodfox had to relearn how to descend stairs, to walk without leg irons, to sit without being chained. But in an interview with The Times just after his release, he spoke of having already released himself years earlier.
“When I started to understand who I was, I thought of myself as free,” he said. “No matter how much concrete they use to hold me down in a particular place, they couldn’t stop my mind.”