Albert Woodfox is 72 years old, slightly built, with rectangular glasses, a neat goatee and a grey afro fading to white. He lives alone in a comfortable three-bedroom house in a middle-class neighbourhood of New Orleans. But occasionally, when he wakes at night and is surrounded by darkness, he forgets this.

"For a moment I'll be confused about where I'm at," he says. A feeling of intense claustrophobia will seize him and panic will start to rise in his chest. "But then I'll realise, 'Oh, I'm in my house.' " After these moments he will sometimes climb out of bed and allow himself to walk around his home, to pace his hallway or even range further afield. "I can walk up and down the block. I can go to the park."

The ability to move around is not something Woodfox takes for granted. He even paces while he talks, walking about his bedroom in a tight circuit for much of our interview. The reason for these habits and behaviours is not a mystery. In February 2016, Woodfox was released from prison, having served 43 years in solitary confinement. Already doing time for armed robbery, he was charged with the 1972 killing of a white prison guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary and kept in almost continuous isolation until his eventual freedom. This meant 23 hours a day spent locked in a tiny 1.8m x 2.7m cell. For decade after decade after decade. By the time he was finally exonerated of the murder – and he had always maintained his innocence – nobody in American history had spent longer under such conditions, which were defined as torture by both the United Nations and Amnesty International.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, the prison where the Angola Three were confined. Photo / Creative Commons - KC Cornell.
Louisiana State Penitentiary, the prison where the Angola Three were confined. Photo / Creative Commons - KC Cornell.

"When I first went into solitary confinement, you had access to nothing," says Woodfox, who has a husky Louisiana drawl and who, for the most part, talks about his life without flinching. "No books or magazines. No TV. No radio. Nothing."

Advertisement

When first confronted with these details, the problem is that the horror of it very quickly becomes abstract. Intellectually, you understand that a cell is an incredibly constricting space. And you understand that 43 years is an incredibly long time. But there comes a point where, no matter how hard you try, you can't really process it into a relatable experience. They just end up being … numbers. Woodfox says he's spent a lot of time "trying to convey how horrible solitary confinement is", although generally people still don't get it. "Imagine standing in your bedroom for 23 hours a day. Or maybe go into your back yard and draw a [1.8m x 2.7m] space," he says. "Well, imagine being in this confined space and not having any way out or there being anything you can do to get out."

For years, Woodfox would suffer panic attacks in jail. The only way to alleviate the feeling that the walls were closing in on him at night was to sleep sitting upright in his cell, or to pace its tiny floor for hours on end. To combat the mind-numbing repetitiveness, he tried anything to create the illusion of change. He would spend months eating his breakfast on his bunk so that, when he switched to eating it standing up, it would feel like a profoundly new experience. "Deep down, I always knew it was the same routine. I couldn't really trick myself into believing otherwise."

His wounds are not just psychological. Woodfox actually chuckles when recounting the physical injuries he received at the hands of prison guards. "Even now, I have a spot on my head where they split my skull. My left hip gives out on me sometimes as a result of being hit in the back with a baseball bat." As the years went by, he believes he developed an immunity to tear gas. "It got to the point where I felt it but it didn't have any effect."

How did this happen? How did a small-time criminal from New Orleans find himself charged with a murder he did not commit and then go on to break all national records for time spent in solitary confinement? Why was it that the state of Louisiana, in the face of overwhelming legal argument, fought so hard to keep him imprisoned for so long? And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, how did Woodfox survive?

He has written an autobiography, Solitary, which sets out to answer everything. He describes growing up poor in the segregated South – he was born in the "Negro" wing of a New Orleans hospital – and of how his mother, barely literate, would sometimes work as a prostitute to support her children. As he reached his teens, he began to drift towards petty crime. At 17, he was sentenced to two years in jail for car theft but managed to escape, making his getaway on – of all things – a cement mixer. A chaotic criminal career saw him in and out of jail over the next few years as he graduated to armed robbery. In 1969, during a court sentencing, he managed to flee the building after executing an escape plan that involved an accomplice hiding a pistol in the paper-towel dispenser of the court toilet, Woodfox obtaining it, handcuffing his two police guards and then making for New York under a false name as fast as he could.

Unable to stay out of trouble, he was arrested again in 1969. But in a New York prison, he had an experience that would change his life for ever. He encountered men who introduced themselves as members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, men who, despite being jailed, seemed to radiate pride, confidence and compassion. They held meetings, which Woodfox cautiously attended. "The concepts they talked about went over my head," he admits. "Economics, revolution, racism and the oppression of the poor around the world. I didn't understand any of it. But I kept going to the meetings."

It was a gradual conversion. But by the time Woodfox was transferred to a prison back in Louisiana, he was a fully fledged member of the Panthers and committed to educating other black prisoners about what he believed was American society's deep-rooted racism. Given his new surroundings, this was not going to be a difficult task. The largest maximum security prison in America, Louisiana State Penitentiary was – and still is – simply known as "Angola", the name of the former slave plantation on which it was built.

"Angola had been designated around that time as the most violent, bloodiest prison in America," says Woodfox, who describes an environment with more than an echo of plantation life. Segregated by race, inmates were forced to cut sugar cane, a job so brutal, they would sometimes pay other men to break their hands in order to avoid it. Many of the prison guards came from white families who had lived on the grounds of Angola for generations. In order to maintain control over the vast prison population, many inmates were simply armed with shotguns and given guard responsibilities. "It was crazy," says Woodfox. "They just ask you, 'You wanna be a guard?' And that's it. The overwhelming majority of inmate guards were white."

And there was, he quickly came to realise, a very real form of slavery taking place within Angola. If one inmate was raped by another, it was understood that they became the literal possession of their rapist – they became a "gal-boy" – and could be pimped out to other prisoners. It was sex slavery and it was not merely condoned but actively encouraged by the prison authorities as a control mechanism, as a means of keeping inmates either docile or broken, depending on whether they were master or slave.

"Men owned other men," says Woodfox flatly. "It was mostly young kids who were coming to prison at 16, 17 years old. You would have all these sexual predators milling around them and taking advantage of them."

Upon arriving at Angola, Woodfox wrote to the Black Panther headquarters and asked for permission to establish a chapter there. His request was granted and his mission, he says, became to "resist, educate and agitate". Woodfox, along with other Panthers he either met or recruited in the prison, formed an anti-rape squad. When new prisoners arrived, every Thursday, the Panthers would approach them and tell them to be on their guard.

"We'd say, 'If someone tries to use physical force, come to us. We'll help.'" And they did. On one occasion, Woodfox disarmed a knife-wielding would-be rapist before standing on a table and making it clear to his dormitory that, "All you motherf***ers who rape people, you are on notice." There were, from that point on, no more rapes in his dorm.

Woodfox says that his vocal commitment to the Black Panthers and his work to recruit members at Angola made him a target for the prison authorities, who lived in fear of uprisings and revolts. On April 17, 1972, a prison guard named Brent Miller was stabbed 32 times in a black dorm. Woodfox and a fellow Black Panther, Herman Wallace, were charged with his murder. The evidence against the two men was flimsy and relied heavily on the testimony of a key witness – a serial rapist serving a life sentence without parole – who named Woodfox and Wallace as the killers.

There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime scene and Woodfox's insistence that he was eating breakfast in the canteen at the time was backed up by other inmates. In a moment of near farce, another witness wheeled out by the prosecution was "clinically blind", according to Woodfox. It didn't matter. He and Wallace were each found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to life imprisonment. After their convictions had been secured, the key witness – the serial rapist – was granted a pardon.

The Angola Three, left to right: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert Hillary King. Illustration / Rashid Mod.
The Angola Three, left to right: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert Hillary King. Illustration / Rashid Mod.

Woodfox knows he was made a scapegoat because of his Pantherism. "Without a doubt," he says. "Herman and I had the audacity to start a Black Panther party in a prison. We were challenging practices and beliefs that went all the way back to the times of slavery. They wanted to contain my influence. But the main thing is, they wanted to break me."

He and Wallace were thrown into solitary confinement. They were joined by another Panther, Robert King, who had been convicted of murdering a fellow inmate. Collectively, they became known as the Angola Three. Between them, they agreed simply to continue with their policy of resistance. "The saddest thing I've encountered in my life is seeing another human being whose spirit has been broken," he says. "Once you break a man or woman's spirit, you lose something you can't get back. So you go through the rest of your life never challenging anything, accepting whatever treatment is inflicted on you as a member of your ethnic group."

Every 90 days, Woodfox and his comrades would have their circumstances reviewed and every time they were renewed. Eventually, the prison authorities began to make them an offer at the end of each 90-day stretch: "Renounce the Black Panther Party, stop our political activities, give up our political beliefs and they would release us from solitary," says Woodfox. "And we would always say – and please excuse my language – 'Go f*** yourself.' "

The three men could communicate by shouting from their cells and congregating during their hour of recreation time, when they would teach other inmates maths and grammar. Woodfox attempted to inoculate himself against pleasure – he would not smoke or drink coffee – in order to limit the power the prison had over him. "I would never allow myself to become dependent on something, because the administrators have the power to take away whatever you have in the blink of an eye. So the less I devour, the less they can take from me."

At times, the Angola Three appeared almost superhuman. When allowed outside for exercise, they would run barefoot, even in the frost, simply to show that they could. They resisted the practice of strip-searches and anal-cavity examinations – daily events where guards would gather round to jeer and hurl insults and that Woodfox compares to the inspection of slaves on plantations.
"You had to spread your buttocks and show your genitals - and 99 per cent of the time you got security guards making all kinds of derogatory comments. You start to see that activity as an attack on your humanity, an attack on your dignity, your pride."

Resistance meant a beating – Woodfox would often quake in terror waiting for the guards to arrive, knowing he was not going to submit without a fight – but at least it was resistance. "It was a conscious decision. How am I going to live? How am I going to be treated? I'm still a human being no matter where I'm at, no matter what the situation is."

At one point, Woodfox, Wallace and King helped lead a hunger strike, protesting against the fact that their meals were pushed into their cells along the ground, as though they were animals.

"Hunger strikes are probably the most difficult and devastating form of protest that prisoners can use, so it takes a great deal of willpower and strength," he says, sighing.

After 45 days without food, slots for food trays were cut into cell doors of prisoners in solitary. "Of course, we didn't think it would be 45 days. No way. But that's what it turned out to be. And you reach a point where you think, 'I'm not going to let them break me.' "

The closest he came was in 1994, when his mother died. By this point he had, through legal petitions, secured the right to access books, magazines and television. He knew his mother was ailing and had expected, as was customary even with high-security prisoners, to be allowed to attend her funeral when she died. But even this was denied to him. "That was the only time I ever came close to breaking, when I lost my mother and not being able to go to her funeral to say goodbye."

By this time, the Black Panther party was long dead. But Woodfox's revolutionary ideals were still cited by prison authorities as the reason for his continued confinement: the fear that he would "infect" other inmates. As he entered his 60s, health issues began to dog him. During a rare medical exam, he was asked how long he had been diabetic. He had no idea that he was. He was told he had hepatitis C and renal problems and was advised to avoid salt. Which is easier said than done when you have no choice but to eat the prison food in front of you.

In 2000, the plight of the Angola Three was brought to the attention of Body Shop owner and human rights activist Anita Roddick. "Up to that point, people in Louisiana and neighbouring states knew who we were, but we didn't have international awareness and support," he says. But the involvement of Roddick changed everything. She came to visit him at Angola, and he remembers being "so nervous" before her arrival.

"It was so strange, you know, because she was this little, petite woman," he says, grinning bashfully. "We sat down, introduced ourselves and I asked if I could give her a hug. She said, 'Of course. I expected a hug.' Five minutes later, she was telling me dirty jokes."

She paid for a lawyer for the three men. In 2001, the conviction of Robert King was overturned on appeal. He became the first of the Angola Three to be released, and threw himself into campaigning on behalf of Woodfox and Wallace. Woodfox explains one of the bitterest aspects of solitary confinement: naturally you want to draw strength from camaraderie with the inmates around you, but even this only leads to vulnerability and pain.

"One of the most difficult things is developing relationships with other men. Because on the one hand you're trying to educate them and lead them. But at the same time you're trying not to get too close to them because you know at any moment these men could be moved. And the pain," he says, voice cracking. "Imagine living with the knowledge that any minute, any second, a friend could be gone."

Roddick, who died in 2007, would not live to see Woodfox or Wallace walk free. But thanks to her backing, they were both able to fight long, gruelling legal battles, filing lawsuits against the Louisiana Department of Corrections and launching appeals against their original sentences. In 2013, Wallace was diagnosed with liver cancer and after a judge ruled that he had not received a fair trial, was released. He died a few days later.

Woodfox's turn came in 2016. By this point, even the widow of the murdered prison guard was campaigning for his freedom. James Dennis, an Appeals Court judge, summarised the previous 43 years in one sentence. "For the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction."

On February 19, 2016 – his 69th birthday – Woodfox walked free. It was a bright day and his brother, Michael, escorted him from the prison gate to his car. He gave a raised-fist salute and then the two men drove to the cemetery where their mother was buried. It was locked. Woodfox says he wanted to climb the fence but was convinced by his brother to return the following day. Laying flowers felt, he says, like the laying down of a burden he'd been forced to carry for years. "I had to wait for so long to go to her grave and tell her how much I loved her and missed her."

Albert Woodfox leaving prison, accompanied by his brother Michael. Photo / William Southern.
Albert Woodfox leaving prison, accompanied by his brother Michael. Photo / William Southern.

Three years on from his release, Woodfox is still adjusting to freedom. To begin with, he found movement hard. He retained the gait of a man in shackles. Having spent so long only really interacting with people directly in front of him, he found the sensation of people moving around him alien and disturbing. At a party to celebrate his release, he would jump whenever a well-wisher clapped him on the back or gave him a bear hug. "It took me a couple of months to get comfortable with that."

Albert Woodfox (left, at table) and Robert King (right, at table) at an Angola Three event at Manchester Metropolitan University in November, 2016. Photo / Ardfern.
Albert Woodfox (left, at table) and Robert King (right, at table) at an Angola Three event at Manchester Metropolitan University in November, 2016. Photo / Ardfern.

Having spent years scrubbing his cell every day, his house is always "spotlessly clean". He doesn't need to eat much and usually gets by on one meal a day. He generally wakes up around 3.30am. "Because in prison that was the time when you could get things done. It's quiet. There's no shouting. There's nobody moving up and down the hall."

When he entered Angola, he had a young daughter by a girlfriend. When he came out, he had three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They have helped him to open up.

"When you're in prison, you're very cautious and you keep your emotions and expectations of life as low as possible. But since I've been out, my grandkids have helped me extend my emotions and my love of humanity."

American society, he stresses, has really not improved all that much since the 60s. "I was shocked and sad that there was no real change," he says. "We have a situation where white supremacism is on the rise in America and around the world and that's a threat to the democratic process."

Woodfox is still pacing around his bedroom. Later today, he is meeting friends in New Orleans. He talks with enthusiasm about the "beautiful" patio in his back garden and of a nearby lake he enjoys visiting. People will often ask him if he would change anything about his life, but his answer is always the same. "Not one thing," he says. "All I went through made me the man I am today."

Solitary, by Albert Woodfox, is published by Text Publishing, $40.