Albert Woodfox On Serving More Than 40 Years In Solitary Confinement
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Albert Woodfox joins us now from the studios of WWNO in New Orleans, and I want to ask him to read a paragraph from the new book that he's written with Leslie George. It's called "Solitary."
ALBERT WOODFOX: (Reading) I pace the cell to think. I pace to relieve tension. I lightly box the walls. My knuckles have calluses on them from boxing the wall. I do pushups on my fists. I don't have deep thoughts. I'm practical. I get through the day the way I have done a thousand times. Will this be the day I break? I push that thought away. Mind over matter. I keep moving so later I can sleep sometime.
SIMON: Albert Woodfox served more than 40 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana's Angola Prison for a crime he says he didn't commit - the murder of Corrections Officer Brent Miller. Mr. Woodfox was already serving time at Angola for armed robbery and believes he and another inmate were set up because of their prison activism as members of the Black Panther Party. His conviction for Brent Miller's murder was overturned twice. Each time, the state indicted him again. He was finally set free in 2016 after a plea deal to lesser charges. Albert Woodfox says the self-discipline instilled in him by his mother helped him through those decades alone in his cell.
WOODFOX: I spent a lot of time reading, writing - self-education. I used the time to teach myself both criminal and civil law. And we lived on what we call an organized tier along the principles of the Black Panther Party, developing unity among the other guys on the tier. We taught guys how to read and write, which, you know, I think was my greatest achievement.
SIMON: Mr. Woodfox, how often were you gassed?
WOODFOX: Oh, my goodness. Well, gas was a standard form of weapons that the security people used. So anytime you challenge inhumane treatment or you challenge unconstitutional conduct, they would gas you, you know. And depending on the severity of the confrontation, they would open up your cell, and they would come in and beat you down and then, you know, shackle you and bring you to the dungeon. And you probably would stay there a minimum of 10 days. The fact that I was involved in organizing a lot of the protests against - you know, along with Herman and Rob...
SIMON: Friends of yours, fellow inmates who were in at the same time.
WOODFOX: Yeah, the other two men that made, you know, made up - what's it called? - the Angola Three. They made it very possible for me to survive decades in solitary confinement and not just survive but to know that - to develop myself into a better person, a better human being, a better man. And we, Herman and I, established the only recognized chapter of the Black Panther Party in a prison. And when Officer Miller was found stabbed to death, we became the primary target of the administration and the security people.
SIMON: Mr. Woodfox, did you have a problem with closed-in spaces?
WOODFOX: Yeah. I mean, I have problems even now, you know. I still have claustrophobic attacks. If there's a solution for claustrophobic - you know, for me, it was the pacing. You know, you get this urge when these attacks - before this occur, you know, you feel like the atmosphere is closing in on you. You feel like the very skin on your body is compressing and like, you know, you feel like you're smothering. So, you know, you fight not to panic, you know. I mean, for me, that was the key, you know, not to panic.
And, you know, over the decades, you know - I mean, I've - there have been times and particularly during the summer months when I've had attacks and I walk up and down my cell. And there was a puddle of water from the front of the cell to the back of the cell from me sweating, you know. And you just pace, you know. And there have been times when, you know, the attacks last, you know, four, five minutes. And there have been times when they last for hours and hours, you know.
SIMON: Over the years, Brent Miller's widow, Teenie, became convinced you couldn't have been the person who murdered her husband, right?
WOODFOX: Yes. When I got out, I had an opportunity to sit down with her and, you know, have dinner and meet with her and her daughter. And, you know, our hearts always did go out to Ms. Rogers because, you know, we knew that she was not being told the truth. You know, all of the evidence that pointed to someone else killing Brent Miller, she was never made aware of that to my understanding. And - but once, you know, our investigators and stuff, you know, talked to her and give her all the facts, then on her own she come to the conclusion that, you know, we had been wrongfully convicted for the death of her husband, you know. And she became an ardent supporter for our freedom, you know.
SIMON: This seems like such a naive question, but how are you doing now?
WOODFOX: I'm doing OK, you know. I mean, I just celebrated my 72nd birthday and my three-year anniversary of freedom, you know. As I said since I've been out, I've been out and I had an opportunity to speak across America and outside America. And, you know, one of the thing that the three of us promised and made a vow to is that when we went free that we would be the voice and the face of the men and women and children that hidden behind the walls of prisons in this country. So that's, you know, what we are trying to do now. And, of course, we are trying to end the use of solitary. You know, solitary confinement is the most cruel form of torture.
SIMON: Albert Woodfox's new memoir, "Solitary."
Thank you so much for being with us.
WOODFOX: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT'S "ANGOLA, LA AND THE 13TH AMENDMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.