On February 19, 2016, Albert Woodfox was finally released from prison after spending 43 years in solitary for a crime he did not commit. I last wrote about Woodfox in May 2014 for the Clyde Fitch Report, and after decades of costly litigation, the State of Louisiana finally freed Woodfox. He maintained his innocence the entire time, and ironically began a new life outside the 6′ x 9′ cell where he had spent almost his entire adult life on his 69th birthday.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Hundreds of activists, artists and legal experts helped Woodfox.[/pullquote]
Over the years, Federal courts overturned Woodfox’s conviction three separate times for constitutional violations including prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson, and suppression of exculpatory evidence. On June 8, 2015, Federal Judge James Brady ordered Woodfox’s immediate release and barred the State from retrying Woodfox, an extraordinary ruling that he called “the only just remedy.” Yet Woodfox remained in solitary. A divided panel of the 5th Circuit Court of appeals reversed that order in November with the dissenting Judge arguing: “If ever a case justifiably could be considered to present ‘exceptional circumstances’ barring re-prosecution, this is that case.” That ruling was on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court when the agreement to release Woodfox was reached.
Hundreds of activists, artists, legal experts, and other individuals graciously gave of their time and talent to help Woodfox in this extraordinary struggle for justice. But no one deserves more credit than Woodfox, who once recounted to a friend about a doctor who commented on how well Woodfox was doing in solitary:
I told him that unless he sits in a cell 23 hours a day for 40 years, he has no idea what he’s talking about. I said you want to know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid I’m going to start screaming and not be able to stop. I’m afraid I’m going to turn into a baby and curl up in a fetal position and lay there like that every day for the rest of my life. I’m afraid I’m going to attack my own body, maybe cut off my balls and throw them through the bars the way I’ve seen others do when they couldn’t take any more.
After an appropriate time for Woodfox to adjust to his new surroundings and spend quality time with his family, the world will benefit from learning and hearing about his experiences. For in his over forty years’ experience of solitude, only broken by delivery of meals and an occasional walk alone within a small space surrounded four walls, he reached an unusual peace—a peace so foreign from any normal experience, that we would be foolish not to learn from the man we now have available to us all.
Woodfox’s victory belongs to history and should motivate each and every one of us to demand that long-term solitary confinement be abolished, all the innocent and wrongfully incarcerated be freed, and those who have paid their debt to society be given an opportunity to work and live as fully restored citizens, not as a permanent under-class of American society.
Albert Woodfox is free at last, finally free at last, but none of us can really be free until all of our brothers and sisters are free as well.