Albert Woodfox: I choose to use my anger as a means for changing things

Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary confinement as one of the Angola Three. Finally released in February this year, here he talks about survival

Everybody has fear, says Albert Woodfox. Fear is the soul telling the body that its in danger. Some people overcome that fear. I overcame it by having a cause. Thats what the party told me: always be honourable, always serve the people. Woodfox, now a grizzled 69-year-old, has had more reasons to be afraid than most, and when he says that he has known more pain and suffering than any human being should be asked to suffer, he is not exaggerating. At the hands of the American penal and judicial system he has endured wrongful imprisonment and deprivation of basic needs to a degree that seems outlandish in an advanced democracy. Yet his experience is not unique. It is an extreme version of something inflicted on thousands of others, and it is on behalf of these others that, he says, he continues to fight.

This February, as he puts it, I walked through the gates of hell into freedom. He was released from 45 years incarceration, almost 44 of them in solitary confinement, for most of the time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola prison. Originally imprisoned for armed robbery, he was later sentenced for the fatal stabbing in 1972 of a prison guard called Brent Miller, a conviction ruled unsafe three times by a federal judge. Together with two other prisoners subjected to decades of solitary, Robert King and Herman Wallace, Woodfox was one of the Angola Three, whose treatment provoked sustained campaigns for their release . Wallace was convicted along with Woodfox for Millers murder, King for a separate murder of another prisoner, of which he was eventually cleared.

Even had he been guilty of Millers murder, decades of solitary confinement would be an exceptionally sadistic punishment, one defined as torture by the United Nations. Woodfox believes it was inflicted on him because he joined the Black Panthers in prison, the party to which he refers. I know how many times they offered that if I gave up my party theyd let me out of solitary. Each time I told them, get out of my face.

The phrase solitary confinement might suggest total isolation, a blank-walled cell with a lightbulb, food pushed through a slot in the wall, a condition which over any length of time would destroy anyone. Woodfox is at pains to say that in Angola his was not this Hollywood version but rather 23 hours a day locked into an 9ft by 6ft (2.7 metres by 1.8 metres) cell, barred at one end, in a tier of 14, 15, 16 similar cells. Some communication was possible with neighbours, even if he could not see them, or with other inmates on their way to the showers. The Angola Three made themselves chess sets out of twisted toilet paper and played games by shouting moves to each other. Woodfox would also walk repeatedly up and down his three-yard-long universe in an effort to keep fit.

The former attorney general of Louisiana James Buddy Caldwell has tried to argue that this wasnt really solitary at all, on the basis of the limited human contact allowed that, rather than being absolutely unsurvivable, it was merely almost so. The United Nations disagrees with his definition and says that no form of solitary confinement should be imposed for more than 15 days that is, about a thousandth of Woodfoxs punishment after which some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible. CCR, or closed cell restricted, to give the term preferred by the prison system, is incomprehensibly harsh. Some inmates, none of whom suffered it as long as Woodfox did, curled themselves up in foetal positions, others screamed. That may seem good, says Woodfox of the fact he could talk to other prisoners, but given the nature of some of these guys driven insane, sometimes it wasnt.

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Albert Woodfox, less than 24 hours after his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Photograph: Bryan Tarnowski/New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

He himself suffered panic attacks sweating, a feeling of being smothered that obliged him to sleep sitting up. So he was not unscathed, but with the two other members of the Angola Three came to the conclusion that we were going to survive. They taught themselves criminal law and civil law and committed themselves to fighting for their own and others causes. From my mom, Woodfox also says, I inherited values and principles that I was able to use: loyalty and devotion, education and discipline. I was able to self-educate, to define who I was. How did he get the books? In prison theres always a black market system.

The Angola Three would fight for better conditions in the prison for example, for access to TV, newspapers and occasional exercise that was initially denied them, and against the degrading way in which their food was pushed into their cell along the ground, under the wall of bars. They used hunger strikes if necessary, the most effective but the most brutal way. They would campaign for their own release and against wider injustices in American society. We argued, but we never broke faith, Woodfox says in Cruel and Unusual, a feature documentary about the Angola Three that will be shown on Channel 4 later this year. We could die in prison if thats what it took. Once you break that spirit, you cant get it back.

Now he sits in the Washington flat (contemporary in style, greyish-white, subdued) of one of his loyal band of supporters, where he is staying in the brief pause between one public event in the nations capital and another in Chicago. He combines an astonishing level of outward calm and peace with a sense of something held in. He is both polite and frank but also seems removed, as his way of dealing with his drastic experiences. Above all, he seems to be maintaining the ferocious self-discipline that kept him sane inside. I still have claustrophobic attacks, panic attacks, he says, I still get angry. I just choose to use my anger as a means for changing things.

He has had the Rip Van Winkle experience of leaving society in one era and re-entering it in another, except that he didnt find that racial politics in the United States had made as much progress as you might think. It was as if the hair, fashion and music of 1971 were still the same, only in the field of social relations. So far, he says of the state of America before and after his imprisonment, my observation is that while there appear to be changes in the country, the changes that did occur are really superficial. He sees the successes of Donald Trump as evidence: He has made racism and bigotry legitimate. He is not going to go away if he loses. It will take another generation to get rid of this kind of garbage.

As far as Woodfox is concerned, he has been grappling with racism all his life, ever since he grew up in New Orleans. He also admits faults of his own. A lot of people have no idea how African Americans lived in the 60s, he says. The vast majority lived in ghettoes, the majority couldnt get jobs or else they got worse paid for the same jobs than white people did. I was a petty criminal at one time. It was a way to survive at times of desperation. I wasnt stealing just to steal, I would steal to bring food into the house. Other than that, it was bullshit things like stealing a car. But I was still a predator on my own people.

Then he was sent to Angola, 140 miles inland from New Orleans, the largest maximum security prison in the US and a place whose notorious horrors have long exercised a special fascination on writers, film-makers and reformers. It occupies a former plantation its name refers to the place of origin of its slaves and following the civil war was owned by a former Confederate major who ran it along lines very like its former existence. African Americans sent there on often slender pretexts were forced to work its fields for the profit of its owners, in a way barely distinguishable from slavery.

Despite periodic attempts at reform, a recitative of outrage about Angola sounds through the decades, in magazines, books and newspapers. Its regime was probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930. In 1952 it was the worst prison in America. In the 1960s it was the bloodiest prison in the south. In 1971 the American Bar Association said that its conditions were medieval, squalid and horrifying. Every week, says Woodfox, someone there was killed or seriously injured. I know guys in Angola, he also says, who have been there 40 years for having a bag of dope. In this telling, given that prisoners still work in its farms and factories for minimal pay, 200-year-old habits are dying hard.

Woodfox states his innocence of the armed robbery charge that had him sent to Angola: I lent my car to my friend and he was involved in a shoot-out with the police. Inside the prison, he started protesting for better conditions. He joined the Black Panthers, the revolutionary black nationalist movement that had reached the peak of its fame and influence in the late 1960s. Woodfox had encountered them in New York while on the run from imprisonment, and been inspired by the confidence and empowerment, until then unfamiliar to him, with which he saw the partys young black men speak. In Angola he followed the Panthers model of self-defence: We were organising against racism and against corruption. They fought, for example, the appropriation by security staff of food and clothing meant for prisoners.

He helped start anti-rape squads. Every Thursday you call it Fresh Fish Day when new arrivals come by bus and get assigned to various camps. Guys would gang up on them, trick them into accepting gifts and then demand payment, which they cant pay. So theyd say youve got to be my gal-boy. Theyd make them into prostitutes, rent them out. Sometimes it would be two or three guys on one man. Sometimes victims would die as a result of their assaults. Woodfox says that the guards knew about it, but they were paid off.

He and his allies would look for first-timers when they got off the bus and try and educate them. He says they were loved and respected by other inmates, but the predators hated our guts. The anti-rape squads were threatened with weapons. They said its not your business. We said were making it our business.

Then Brent Miller, 23 years old and married for two months to 17-year-old Teenie, was killed, stabbed 38 times with a knife and a sharpened lawnmower blade. I never met him, I never talked with him, says Woodfox. I was in the dining hall eating breakfast. He had witnesses to back him up. The prosecutions chief witness was Hezekiah Brown, a serial rapist serving life without parole, who was described as a professional snitch by a fellow inmate and of whom a deputy warden of the prison would say Hezekiah was one you could put words into his mouth. Having first said that he did not witness the crime, he was offered privileges, luxuries such as cigarettes and ultimately freedom to testify against Woodfox and Wallace. He was threatened with solitary if he did not.

Bloody fingerprints at the scene of the crime matched neither of the accuseds and no effort was made to find out whose they were, out of the limited pool of prisoners. Later, during the protracted appeals against their convictions, DNA evidence that might have exonerated Woodfox and Wallace went missing. Among those unconvinced by the evidence would be Millers widow, Teenie. Brent was my whole life, she later said, he was witty, handsome and talented. He sang and played the drums. He was an all-round good soul. But she became very, very angry that, in her view, the wrong men were convicted.

Woodfox and Wallace were tried separately in the court house in St Francisville, which, as the place where many of the penitentiarys large staff live, is almost a company town. All-white juries, who had not been told of Browns incentives, found them guilty. Woodfox and Wallace were put in solitary, in principle a short-term disciplinary measure. It has to be renewed after 90 days, which it was, again and again, until the days turned into years and decades. They were saying we were physically dangerous to ourselves or others, says Woodfox, they didnt let us out because of our reputation, that the young would copy us bullsh-i-i-i-i-t. During this time, to fast-forward more than half a lifetime of legal agonies, dragged out by the authorities to a barely credible degree, the following landmark dates stand out.

In 1992 Woodfoxs conviction was overturned. In 1993 he was indicted again and for some reason he had to wait until 1998 before a retrial, at which point he was convicted again. The jurys forewoman at the time of the reindictment was Anne Butler, formerly married to a former Angola warden, Murray Henderson, and author of a book in which she stated her belief in the guilt of the accused. Even she, it was reported, wondered why she was allowed on the jury.

Woodfoxs second conviction was overturned in 2008 by James J Brady, senior federal judge for the Middle District of Louisiana, and then reinstated in 2010 by a higher court, the Fifth Circuit. It was overturned again in 2013, a decision upheld in 2014 by the Fifth Circuit. In 2015 the state indicted Woodfox for the third time after which Judge Brady issued a rare writ banning a retrial, on the basis that the state were unlikely to give him a fair trial, that key witnesses were all dead and that Woodfoxs age and health meant that he too might die before the process was concluded. The state appealed and in November 2015 the Fifth found Bradys writ excessive, a judgment then appealed by Woodfox.

Early this year, on the advice of his lawyers and in order to end the interminable legal struggle, he reached an agreement with the state whereby he pleaded no contest to its charges and was released on his birthday, 19 February. This wasnt easy. The internal struggle for me was, he recently said, I had spent 43 years of my life never backing down, never compromising what I believe in. But somehow my daughter and my grandkids and great grandkids coming to visit gave me the strength to say, Yeah, youre not compromising on anything. Its not a plea of guilt. This is a plea for freedom.

Meanwhile, in 2001, Robert Kings conviction was overturned and he was released. Herman Wallace had his conviction overturned in 2013 but, even though he was in the final stages of liver cancer, the prison still prevaricated about his release. Only under the threat of being charged with contempt of court did they let him out. He was reindicted by the state two days later. The day after that he died.

During this time the Angola Three became famous for the injustice of their cases and the cruelty to which they were subjected. Their story became the centre of the ongoing campaign to end solitary confinement and the International Coalition to Free the Angola Three was created. The founder of The Body Shop, Anita Roddick, championed their cause and her husband Gordon continued to do so after her death.

The Angola Three endured, day after day, the extreme deprivations and arbitrary humiliations of CCR. Woodfoxs mother and sister died while he was inside, and he was banned from attending their funerals. His brother Michael survives, and visited every month even when displaced by Hurricane Katrina even when it required a five- or six-hour drive for the two hours visiting time permitted by the prison.

The Angola Three were subjected to routine strip and anal cavity searches, sometimes six times a day, until in 1978, their lawsuit to have them restricted was successful. In 2013 the searches started on Woodfox again, requiring another court order that was then appealed by the state. I ask if there were exceptions to what appears to be a story of unmitigated official brutality. There are exceptions, people who are able to hold on to their humanity, who are able to avoid the Robocop syndrome. But absolute power corrupts. Prison guards have absolute power because they realise they can do pretty much what they want.

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Albert Woodfox leaves prison with his brother Michel Mable, who visited him every month. Photograph: Billy Sothern/EPA

In Angola, he also says, you have families that go back generations. They graduate from high school and a week later, they work in Angola. It keeps a tradition going. They become part of the system. Who knows how long its been going on?

Of course, those responsible for the Angola Threes confinement see things differently. One is the devout Southern Baptist Burl Cain, who was warden of Angola from 1992 until he stood down on 1 January this year, under allegations that he inappropriately entered into business deals with relatives of inmates. Described by The Economist as a rockstar of the correctional world, he won fame and praise for reducing Angolas rates of violence. In his words, he transformed this place from a facility of violence and despair to one of peace and morality, a task he set about with what one prisoner called a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other or what the Baptist Press called a firm hand and a strong love for Jesus.

Interviewed in 2008 by Woodfoxs attorney Nick Trenticosta, Cain cited a 1973 letter in which the prisoner called violent revolution a highly necessary occurrence in life. Trenticosta asked if the passage of time, years of good behaviour and the overturning of his second conviction counted for anything. Hes just good because he is locked in CCR, said Cain, not because hes good at heart Because the lion in a cage cant cause much trouble, you see. Trenticosta asked Cain to assume if you can that Woodfox was innocent of Millers killing. I would still keep him in CCR. I still know that he is still trying to practise Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison, because he would organise the young new inmates.

The most persistent adversary of the Angola Three is Buddy Caldwell, attorney general of Louisiana until he was voted out last year amid accusations of what his opponent called cronyism, nepotism and corruption. It was under his direction that the state fought so hard to keep Woodfox in prison, where he would probably still be today if Caldwell were still in office. This is the most dangerous person on the planet, Caldwell has said, and I oppose letting him out with every fibre of my being. He has stated his complete faith in the process that led to Woodfox and Wallaces convictions and has praised Hezekiah Browns courage for testifying in the face of possible intimidation.

Millers siblings, unlike his widow, believe in Woodfox and Wallaces guilt and opposed his release. There is also a website, the Officer Down Memorial Page, which remembers all of law enforcements heroes: it simply states, without reference to the vacated convictions, that he was killed by members of the Black Panthers, a racist, radical group that professed the murders of law enforcement officers. But Woodfox and Wallaces accusers have failed, over decades of legal scrutiny, to make their case without glaring flaws.

Central to the case of the Angola Three are the fears and emotions that the Black Panthers still arouse, 50 years after their founding and more than 30 years after they faded away in the early 80s. J Edgar Hoover called them the greatest threat to the internal security of the country and, as is now known, set about destabilising them, getting its leaders locked up and, if desired, killed. In this context, where someone like Woodfox is deemed a threat to the future of the US, the attitudes and practices of someone like Cain become, though not justifiable, explicable.

It is also is a matter of record that Black Panthers advocated violence and expressed sympathy for the likes of Stalin, Mao Zedong and the regime of North Korea. As well as fighting flagrant injustice and founding free food and health programmes for the poor, some of its factions resorted to criminal gangsterism and included murder, torture and rape among their methods. Now that Woodfox is free and dedicated to campaigning, I ask him if he means to do this by legal and democratic means. Thats the culture and tradition of America, he answers. Of the letter cited by Cain, he says that he wasnt advocating revolution, just explaining what it would entail.

But he is not going to disavow the party, and the day before our interview he shared a platform in a Washington convention centre with Bobby Seale, who with Huey Newton founded the Panthers. Rather, he sees campaigns like Black Lives Matter, with which he is involved, as an extension of what the Black Panther Party was. They want what our ancestors have always been asking for, just to be equal. To achieve this we have to do something different, because we are too predictable. Were not even allowed the right to resist. If we do, were criminals.

It was, he says, so disappointing when I got out to find that conditions when I left 45 years ago are still here. With the first black president, everyone thought we had reached a milestone, but it just looked different. If, he continues America has nothing else to thank Donald Trump for, it is to show that racism is very much alive. He didnt come out of nowhere. I thought the battle would be economic, not sick-assed philosophy about racism 45 years later.

And so he is travelling and speaking, jetting from one American city to another to speak of his experiences and to fight, along with Robert King, for the abolishment of solitary confinement and freedom for political prisoners and political prisoners is what he believes many of those incarcerated in America to be who remain victims of the criminal injustice system in the USA. Apart from his fugitive trip to New York, he had never been out of Louisiana until this year, but now he travels from coast to coast and north to south, and is coming to Britain next month for a multi-city tour. All this from a man who came out of jail with hepatitis C, diabetes, renal failure and hypertension. His health has improved dramatically in the months of his freedom, partly due to receiving treatments denied him inside.

Were trying to get some kind of civil oversight, he says, to hold the administration accountable. When society looks the other way then the judicial system, from police to the courts to the prisons, becomes judge, jury and executioner. The treatment of people like himself is more than a legal issue, its a moral issue. Its no different to what they do in other countries that we call dictatorships. We just have a more sophisticated way of doing it.

He gets support from the people who campaigned for his release, from fellow activists, and especially from his brother my rock who is all that is left of the family he grew up with. But in general he likes to downplay the drama of his transition and to stress that, through continuing the activism that he started inside prison, his move to life outside was made easier. Theres some residue, but it doesnt dominate my life. I was not connected to the prison system. I did not have to break a lot of ties to the prison culture. I was already free in my mind. There was more like a physical adjustment. I had to learn to live beyond a 9ft cell. Has he even had a holiday since his release in February? I went to Yosemite. I read a lot of National Geographic in prison and I had a lifetime desire to go there. It was overwhelming.

The European Freedom Tour: see Albert Woodfox talk

Albert Woodfox and his fellow surviving member of the Angola Three, Robert King, will visit the UK and France next month, kicking off on 1 November with the launch of Amnesty UKs Write for Rights campaign.

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Albert Woodfox is greeted by Robert King during Woodfoxs first post-release appearance in New Orleans, February 2016. Photograph: Max Becherer/AP

Thursday 3 November, Liverpool
John Foster Building, John Moores University, 80-98 Mount Pleasant, L3 5UZ, 5.30pm.
Click here to reserve your free place.

Friday 4 November, Manchester
Brooks Building, Faculty of Education, Metropolitan University, 53 Bonsall St, M15 6GX, 5.30pm. Click here to reserve your free place.

Monday 7 November, London (Guardian event)
Simon Hattenstone talks to Albert Woodfox and Robert King on the eve of the US election. The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, N1 9GU, 7pm. Click here to book your ticket.

Tuesday 8 November, Cambridge
Lab 026, Lord Ashcroft Building, Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, CB1 1PT, 6pm. Click here to reserve your free place.

After touring the UK, Woodfox and King will travel to France and speak at events and attend meetings hosted by Amnesty France. More information about the Angola 3 and event details can be found at angola3.org

Cruel and Unusual, a documentary directed by Vadim Jean and telling the story of the Angola Three, will be screened on Channel 4 later in the year.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/oct/23/albert-woodfox-interview-released-angola-three-louisiana-state-penitentiary