You’re busy and successful, the very embodiment of American culture, or perhaps you’re a single parent struggling to pay the bills and stay one step ahead. You’re up early to exercise or get the kids to school, you work hard all day, often into the night. If only there was more time in a day. Never a moment to relax, attend a play, spend some time at the easel, practice the violin, curl up with a good book. You wonder where the days go and you dream of just a few hours to yourself. How much time alone in the quiet sounds good to you? A few hours, a couple of days, maybe a week? How about 42 years? Except there are no violins to play and you live in a six-foot-by-nine-foot box.
That’s exactly how Albert Woodfox has lived for more than four decades. Now 67, he sits, an innocent man, all alone in that box, that prison cell, for at least 23 hours a day, day after day. When the weather allows, he is chained at the ankles, waist and wrist and escorted to an outdoor cage to walk around or sit alone for under an hour. Until a few weeks ago, he was still subject to strip and anal cavity searches at least six times a day, despite only interacting with prison officials. (A federal judge stopped this nonsense, thank goodness.) Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned three times, most recently in February 2013. He has not had a serious prison disciplinary infraction in decades and prison mental health records confirm that he poses no danger to himself or other inmates. Despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, his conviction being overturned, his age, and the fact that he is clearly no threat, Woodfox remains in solitary confinement — where he was first put by Louisiana prison officials 42 years ago. Forty-two years: long enough for a baby to grow up and become a father and then become a grandparent.
Woodfox is no character in a novel of social conscience. He is a real person living out an American nightmare. Forty-two years ago, he was housed in the largest prison in the U.S., a former Louisiana slave plantation called Angola. Along with Herman Wallace and Robert King — now collectively known as the Angola 3 — Woodfox tried to put a stop to the extraordinarily inhumane practices that earned Angola the reputation of being the bloodiest prison in the South by organizing hunger strikes to expose corruption and abuse. They paid an unthinkable price for this, being wrongfully charged with the murder of a prison guard and each thrown into solitary. While he was eventually moved to a different Louisiana prison, Woodfox still remains, 42 years later, in solitary. He has never stopped fighting to prove his innocence or to reform injustice from behind bars.
There are three reasons why Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned three times: racial discrimination, an inadequate defense and prosecutorial misconduct. And then there is the exculpatory DNA evidence that has been conveniently “lost.” And the bloody footprint at the scene of the prison guard murder that didn’t match any of the three men. And, at trial, the star witness who lied under oath about promised rewards for “cracking the case.” The warden has admitted that the star witness was “one who you could put words in his mouth” and that he promised to get the witness — a serial rapist — a pardon for his testimony. While the star witness serial rapist went free long ago, Woodfox remains in hell.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Docia Dalby once described what was then nearly four decades of solitary suffered by the Angola 3 as “durations so far beyond the pale” that she could not find “anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence.” Last fall, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, called on the U.S. to immediately end Woodfox’s solitary confinement, stating that it “clearly amounts to torture.” Last year, in July 2013, a group of U.S. Congressmen issued a statement from the House Judiciary Committee calling on the Department of Justice to investigate “the egregious and extensive use of solitary confinement and other troubling detention practices in various Louisiana prison facilities.” The allege that the Louisiana Department of Corrections has “engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution and Federal law in its use of such confinement and detention practices.”
King and Wallace have been freed, although in starkly different manners. King was released after 29 years in solitary when he was able to “prove” his innocence. Since his release, he has earned a Doctorate of Laws from Cambridge University and speaks tirelessly about U.S. prison conditions — hardly the societal threat that prison wardens claimed he was.
Wallace was released last October after 41 years in solitary, only because his conviction was overturned and because a Federal judge ordered his release — this, despite dramatic cries by Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, that the world would come to an end. Wallace died three days after his release of advanced liver cancer at age 72. Not to be accused of being soft, the state of Louisiana attempted to indict Wallace again on his deathbed. Why? Maybe because Louisiana prosecutors needed to underscore their conservative credentials for the next election cycle. Or maybe they are just plain cruel. After Wallace’s death, a group of U.S. Congressmen marked his passing with an official tribute into the Congressional Record describing him as “a champion of justice and human rights.”
Woodfox, the last of the Angola 3, remains behind bars, fighting to expose the truth about Louisiana prisons and the inhumane torture society politely called “solitary.” If the State of Louisiana has its way, he will not only die in prison, but will die behind locked doors and alone, closed off from the world or anyone who cares two hoots about him. Caldwell, who probably won’t get an award for “Mr. Compassion,” calls this 67-year-old, frail man man “the most dangerous person on the planet.” (By the way, he said this while Osama Bin-Laden was still on the loose. Sounds to me that ol’ Buddy could use a reality check.)
For seven years, I have had the honor of working to free the Angola 3. My role has been minimal compared to many others. I was recently reminded of why I got involved. Besides fighting for his personal freedom, Woodfox has filed a civil suit against the prison to try and force the state of Louisiana to stop using extended solitary for no good reason. Frankly, there is no good reason for extended solitary. In anticipation of the trial, the state had him interviewed by a psychiatrist, hoping to get him to say that solitary isn’t so bad. Recently, he recounted the encounter to a friend. Here are his words:
Now, all these years later, the hearing on the civil case related to our long-term solitary confinement is approaching. So they sent this psychiatrist to question me. What he was doing, of course, was to try to get me to say that 40 years in solitary confinement hasn’t really been all that bad. ‘You seem quite well adjusted,’ he said.
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.
No television or hobby craft or magazines or any of the other toys you call yourself allowing can ever lessen the nightmare of this hell you help to create and maintain.
I have been sustained in my struggle by three men. Nelson Mandela taught me that if you have a noble cause, you can bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. Malcolm X taught me that it doesn’t matter where you start out; what matters is where you end up. And George Jackson taught me that if you’re not willing to die for what you believe in, you don’t believe in anything.
I know you’re only doing your job, Doc. You have your job and I have mine. I am a teacher. And I am living proof that we can survive the worst to change ourselves and our world no matter where we are. I do not want to die in a cell, but if I must to make the lesson clear, then I am willing to do just that.
Now you know why it’s my privilege to help in any way I can.
Caldwell, along with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, have spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars keeping an old, harmless man not just in prison, but in solitary. Denials of “nothing I can do” and “I’m just doing my job” ring hollow at best and lack moral authority. At worst, such denials indicate that, 42 years later, Louisiana hasn’t changed one damn bit. You have to wonder why citizens of the state put up with cruel, vindictive behavior from these people. Hasn’t justice — and Woodfox — been punished enough?