After four decades of solitary confinement and two documentaries made about him, the last of the Angola Three was ordered released from prison on Monday. Albert Woodfox, 68, had spent the better of part of his life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for killing a prison guard. In releasing Woodfox, who was the longest serving prisoner in solitary confinement in U.S. history, the judge also ordered that he would not be tried for the killing for a third time.
Woodfox and two fellow inmates, Robert King and Herman Wallace, became known as the Angola Three for their long stretches spent in solitary confinement, which advocacy groups have said constitutes torture. The three men were serving time for unrelated charges when they established a Black Panther chapter at the prison, which is more commonly referred to as simply "Angola." The men maintain that their activism was the true reason that they landed in solitary confinement for so long.
Woodfox was moved to solitary confinement in 1972 when he, along with Wallace, was charged with killing 23-year-old prison guard Brent Miller. Woodfox and Wallace were convicted of stabbing the guard to death in 1973, but the conviction — and another subsequent ruling — was overturned. King, who was convicted of murdering another inmate, was released from Angola in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. Wallace died days after a judge ordered his release.
U.S. District Judge James Brady, who presided over the case, wrote:
The only just remedy is an unconditional writ of habeas corpus barring retrial of Mr. Albert Woodfox and releasing Mr. Woodfox from custody immediately.
Brady added that "there is no valid conviction holding him in prison, let alone solitary confinement." Additionally, Brady barred Woodfox from having to stand trial for a third time, saying that he believed it would be difficult to secure a fair trial.
King, who was the first of the Angola Three to be released, has become a public speaker since he regained freedom in 2001. He is still tight-lipped about the specifics of solitary confinement, focusing his energies on activism and prison reform. But it an interview with the ACLU, King shed some light on the long-term effects.
Being in solitary confinement is nothing enjoyable, I can tell you this. It definitely wears you down and tears you down to a great degree.
The worst thing, the punishment that I underwent was separating from people. Just being on a tier [a prison hallway] with someone, maybe hearing a voice every now and then, while it’s not total sensory deprivation, it is almost worse. That has a tendency to dehumanize people.
Most times people hear me talking, and they’ll ask me a lot of the time, why aren’t you insane? I would like to think that I’m very sane.
But I’m also prone to tell people that it’s impossible to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking. Or not come up smelling. The impact, even though there might not be a physical stench, the psychological stench is something that I can’t even fathom.
Only thing I know is this, when you are in solitary confinement, the best way I could describe it is, the soul cries and I think the brain shrinks. Especially if you are in a 6x9x12 foot cell, your brain is automatically shrinking, and I think everything else shrinks with it. And I think that’s lasting.
This release has laid rest to a decades long human rights struggle. There have been no comments on what Woodfox will do after he is free from solitary confinement for the first time in 43 years.
Images: Wikimedia Commons/WhisperToMe