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Albert Woodfox was born in New Orleans in 1947. One of The Angola Three, Woodfox survived over four decades in solitary confinement—the longest period of consecutive solitary confinement in U.S. prison history—at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola Prison. He finally walked free in 2016. This year he published a critically-acclaimed memoir Solitary (Grove Press), detailing his journey of surviving the brutality of prison torture and his militant prisoner organizing as a member of The Black Panther Party. Scalawag editor Zaina Alsous spoke with Albert over the phone earlier this summer to ask more about his political analysis, the tactic of shared study, and formative experiences while he was held captive at Angola.
While so much of the coverage of your book has emphasized the almost hard to fathom physical and mental endurance it takes to survive decades in solitary, I want to hear more about your relationship to the Black Panther Party—which seems to have guided so many of your choices to be a revolutionary prisoner organizer. What first led you to join the Black Panther Party?
Like everyone in the '60s I had a peripheral awareness of the Black Panther Party. At the time I was a petty criminal. I had been arrested and tried and found guilty for armed robbery. I was only 22 years old, and staying in Harlem, but I had a close contact with a member of the Black Panther Party and I saw them serving the community any way they could. A lot of people are under the impression that I joined the Party in New York because of the uprising at Attica, but I was connected to Party members in New Orleans after being extradited from New York to New Orleans, who were being tried for a shootout with the New Orleans Police Department. It was there that I joined the Party in 1971. What the Party stood for, and the ideas—I just loved the boldness of the Party; African American men and women standing up knowing what the repercussions could be and deciding to take control of their lives, take control of the lives of the Black community, and resist oppression, economic exploitation, and exclusion of Black people. It's hard to put into words, it was just something about the Party, when so many other influences in my life had failed, something about the party resonated with me. They had the audacity to offer membership to men and women who were in prison, to my knowledge no other political organization was attempting to do something like that in the '60s and '70s.
How long were you held at Angola before you decided you wanted to establish a branch of the Black Panther Party there, and why did you want to establish a branch at Angola?
I joined the Black Panther Party when I was in the New Orleans Parish prison and met members there awaiting trial. They used to have political classes on a daily basis and they raised my level of consciousness. They put into words things I was feeling but could never put words to, making me aware and giving me a sense of value as a human being, exposing me to the history and culture of Black people that I had no idea [about], I just wanted to be a part of it. More than anything the fact that they said 'What do you think about joining the Party?'… I was shocked, and after that I was very honored and impressed that they saw something in me, even though I was in prison and had a 50 year prison sentence, to embrace me and ask me to be part of what they were trying to do. That led me to join the Party.
There was an uprising at the New Orleans Parish Prison over the conditions led by the Black Panther Party and I was part of, and after that was over I was sent back to Angola in the summer of 1971, I think. After I joined the Party, a guy on the tier, Charles, who was in leadership [with the Party] at the time, when I told him I was being shipped to Angola, and asked him, 'Well what do I do now?' he said, 'You are a member of the Party now, you are expected to uphold the principles and values of The Black Panther Party and you are expected to organize against anything you see and believe to be morally wrong.' When I went to Angola I had that mandate, so I began to organize against the stuff that I was aware of: the exploitation, the corruption, the brutality. At that time Angola had been designated the bloodiest prison in America. It used to be a slave plantation. It was difficult at first because I was well-known by the prison population from my life as a petty criminal, but it gave me an opportunity to talk to guys. And they would listen whether they agreed with me or not. Eventually Herman Wallace was put on the new prison complex so him and I teamed up to speak out and organize against what was happening in the prison, and eventually the chapter took on a life of its own. We contacted the Panthers in the street and asked them to recognize the chapter we were trying to establish and to my knowledge it was the only prison chapter of the Black Panther Party at that time that existed.
What led to you being placed in solitary confinement?
In April of 1972, a prison guard had been stabbed in a living unit, and because of our activities and our organizing we became primary suspects. I was the first one who was picked up and investigated for murder, and eventually framed and persecuted for it. The intent was to give me the death sentence, but at the time in 1973 the Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional in its application, in that 30 day period before my sentencing, so I was put on life without parole. I was placed in solitary confinement on April 18, 1972, and for the most part never left solitary over the course of 44 years and 10 months. I was released on my birthday in 2016.
What were some of your daily practices to stay resilient under those conditions?
Eventually, over the years and decades of organizing other prisoners who were also in solitary confinement, we were able to make some gains. But originally in 1972 Herman and I the only thing we could have in a cell was a couple of pairs of underwear, a pair of shower shoes, and a bible; in solitary you are in a cell for 23 hours out of 24 hours a day.
The fact that I had joined the Black Panther Party, the fact that I had that level of political consciousness I had something to work with—I had a philosophy, a belief, that emboldened me.
[Another comrade] Robert King, he wasn't even at the prison when Brett Miller was killed, but when he came to Angola from New Orleans they put him in solitary because they knew he had joined the Black Panther Party as well, and so he was also put under investigation for the murder even though he was 100 some miles away.
Because of the age of Angola, the area of the cell block in solitary, the cells had bars in front instead of concrete and an iron door, so it made it much easier to communicate, you could talk to people, shout back and forth up and down the tier, so communication was much easier than if you were in a totally enclosed concrete cell with a metal door.
First we just established some principles of unity, how did we want to live on the tier, how did we want to live among one another, how did we want to support one another? That eventually led to educational classes, history classes, political classes and so we were able to raise the level of consciousness of the men who lived on the tier with us as well as men on other tiers. At the time there were four tiers, and 15 cells to each tier.
What were some of the classes y'all taught?
At the beginning it was basically me, Robert, and Herman, and we were still at a very young stage ourselves but the things we read and talked about: slavery, politics, and the struggle for freedom of African people in this country. Eventually as we became more educated, because of our reading we were able to expand upon history. Primarily when we first started out it was just [literacy] education. Most of the guys couldn't read or write, so we would help the guys learn how to read and write, and then we would expand to history and geography.
Throughout your time there it seems you never gave up on the importance of organizing and educating people who you were held in bondage alongside. Why did you believe it was necessary to teach prisoners how to read and fight back?
At the time it was more instinctive than intellectual, I knew that reading had helped me, had raised my level of consciousness of the contributions of people of African descent not just to America but to the world and society as a whole. We felt in order to be able to communicate with each other better we had to develop some kind of connection and that connection was education. It would give all of us something in common and bond us all together.
What was your greatest victory in surviving decades of solitary confinement at Angola?
I'm still alive. But me personally, my greatest achievement was to teach a guy how to read and write. His own words one day, 'Man you just opened up the world to me.' I have never had an emotional connection the way I had when he said that to me, so overwhelming that I had made such a profound impact on another person's life.
Since leaving prison, what is your assessment of where the movement for justice and emancipation is now in the United States?
When I was released from Angola of course I was aware, by that time solitary had evolved to where we have access to magazines and newspapers and radio because of years of protest, hunger strikes, and all the other forms of protest and legal battles, so I was aware that there had been tremendous changes. But once I got out, I don't know if solitary increased my intuition, but I sensed after about two to three weeks that nothing had really changed in America. There were technological advances but everything was superficial, the racism and attitudes were more coded now, instead of using more brutal terms to attack African Americans they had developed an intellectual code. For a while I wondered if I was being accurate or fair in my analysis and then America elected Donald Trump and unleashed him on the world so that was kinda like yep, I was right, nothing has changed.
What can organizers on the outside of prisons learn from the organizing and active struggles happening inside of prisons?
If anything, recognize their strength. If these men, women, and in some cases children can find a way to organize, find a way to come together under the harsh conditions of prison, then surely they can do the same in society; to not back down, to not back away when you see something is inhumane or morally wrong, to take a stand against it.
Any final words?
I guess I would say that people have to see social struggle as a way of life, not an event… [not like] you get to a certain plateau or you achieve certain things and everything is over. There will always be challenges in civil society, so when you make a commitment to social struggle it has to be a lifetime commitment, not just for a particular person, but for humanity as a whole.