As the billboards and Cajun fishing shacks swooshed by along the road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, the swampy delta landscape looked familiar: 12 years ago I travelled this road to the prison at Angola in Louisiana with the Danish vagabond, Jacob Holdt. We had toured the shantytowns just beyond the prison walls where families of prisoners settled to be nearer their shackled kin. But on this day I would be venturing inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary for the first time, to meet with Albert Woodfox, a man who has been kept like an animal in solitary confinement for the past 30 years.
I had learned of the Angola Three – of whom Woodfox is one, along with Robert King Wilkerson and Herman Wallace – through a remarkable young American attorney named Scott Fleming. The story Fleming told me a year ago made the blood run cold in my veins.
To my mind, Albert Woodfox and his friend Herman Wallace, who were framed for the murder of a white prison guard, are political prisoners – every bit as much the victims of an oppressive government that feels threatened by their intelligence and activism as any of the men and women in Amnesty International’s campaigns. But the fact they wallow in a prison in America, a reputed democracy and bastion of freedom and civility, means that their story has not been told.
In the early 1970s, when the Angola Three dared to stand up for basic human rights and dignity inside the prison, Angola was known as the bloodiest prison in America. It was racially segregated. Guards were permitted to carry loaded weapons. Inmate-on-inmate rape and murder were daily occurrences. Some say reformers have improved conditions, but violence and corruption still plague the place.
I wanted to hear the story from the Angola Three themselves and to see the prison for myself. So I headed back to the swamplands of southern Louisiana to do just that.
*Down on the farm*
There is something unnervingly perfect about the prison grounds – at least, the parts the public is permitted to see. The core complex of outbuildings, concrete cell blocks and massive dormitories is surrounded by 18,000 acres of lush cropland and perfectly manicured lawns. It looks like something out of a David Lynch movie – so beautiful and ideal it is vaguely sinister. Even the miles of coils of razor wire gleam as if hand-polished daily. Apart from the constant clanging of keys, a visitor to this place could almost forget they are in a prison and not in some Doris Day movie. Unfortunately, all that is window dressing covering some ugly truths.
Once inside the prison I was searched by guards, sniffed for drugs or weapons by dogs, and permitted only my passport and a few dollars to carry inside. The guards noted my British accent and began regaling me with their opinions on the Royal Family. Given our environment, the conversation was ridiculous and banal. Just in time, dozens of other visitors and I were whisked off in enormous blue busses to the visiting area, where I finally met Albert.
The moment he sat down, I knew: this man is a political animal. In the five hours we spent together, the depth and breadth of his knowledge about the world astonished me. He talked about AIDS in Africa, the Palestinians, corporate globalization. He consistently showed an amazing antenna for stories of people who have been marginalized through war or injustice. His capacity for empathy was breathtaking.
I suddenly felt phoney for even being there, offering to help when he had been waiting three decades for someone to notice his predicament, suffering in solitude but with dignity. How could I possibly relate to a man who has been locked up for 30 years in a tiny cell? For a long time it was all I could do just to listen. Listening has never been my strong suit.
*Three decades in solitary confinement*
Albert described his cell for me: less than three metres square, it has a steel bed platform bolted to one wall with a thin mattress atop it. A small table is bolted to the opposite wall, and the third wall is occupied by a combination toilet and sink. He is not allowed to put anything on the walls, so he lines the perimeter of his wall with books along the floor. And he has two steel boxes under the bed in which he keeps all of his earthly belongings. He spends 23 hours a day there. Three days a week he is given an hour in the yard – not much more than a small cage with a dirt floor – where he can exercise alone. The other four days a week he can use his hour for a shower or to walk along the cramped cell block. The heat is unimaginable. The day I visited it was 37 degrees, and humid. The cell block has one fan for every five cells, and no air conditioning.
But Albert did not complain. Instead, he talked about his mother, who had raised him and his siblings alone, keeping food on the table, clothes on their backs and a roof over their heads – he called his childhood home ‘an oasis in a pocket of poverty’ – by working as a prostitute. Just before she died, his mother asked him: ‘Albert, when those white folks gonna let you out?’ He talked about his sister, who has been his biggest supporter and now lies dying from cancer in New Orleans, unable to visit him any more. Albert hopes to be permitted to attend her funeral – a hope that is probably misplaced.
If there is a Zen word for waitfulness, Albert is the embodiment of it
For a man with so much reason to be angry or hopeless, Albert is remarkably peaceful and calm, focused on his belief that some day justice will be done. If there is a Zen word for waitfulness, Albert is the embodiment of it. He said when Robert King Wilkerson was released in 2001 after 28 years in solitary by proving he had been falsely accused, Herman Wallace and he felt that a part of them was finally free, too.
I asked him how he manages it, how he keeps from going crazy. ‘You do go a little crazy sometimes,’ he said, ‘especially when you know you’re innocent. I have bouts of depression and hopelessness, of course. You live with the weight of being convicted for something you didn’t do. It’s a constant itch that you can never scratch.’
He spoke of the 45-day hunger strike he and Wallace and Wilkerson had led in the late 1970s. Their demands seemed simple enough: they wanted their cell doors equipped with food slots so that their meals were not dragged across the filthy floor and shoved under the bars, spilling food and attracting infestations of rats and cockroaches. The prison administration ignored their pleas at first but eventually relented, and today all the cell doors have food slots at waist level.
What bravery to be fighting the system at that time of absolute corruption. A metaphor kept on coming into my head as I looked across the table at Albert: even in wartime they will build cathedrals.
I asked Albert what he would do when he was released. He said he’d want to be alone. But, I thought, hadn’t he been alone all these years? The cell he lives in is on a block with dozens more just like it. He can overhear conversations shouted between his fellow prisoners on the tier. Until very recently the constant noise of a television blared from six in the morning to midnight on weekdays, 24 hours straight on weekends. He craves quiet, and the quiet conversation of his loved ones, far away from the shouts and cacophonous vulgarities of prison.
He says it isn’t human companionship he craves, it’s intimacy – his confinement has robbed him of that. While he may get out to experience it again, you can’t get 30 years back. What they’ve denied you is memory. They’ve denied you your future by stealing your past.
What they’ve denied you is memory. They’ve denied you your future by stealing your past
Albert says that the first luxury item he will buy when he emerges into freedom is a pair of swim trunks. He hasn’t had a swim in over 30 years. And after a good swim and a vacation in the wilderness, he would return to political activism. He says he would get back to grassroots organizing for justice in his community.
I am reminded of a quote I read on the wall of an Indian bank years ago. It was Gandhi who said: ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.’
Albert Woodfox is not weak, by any means. But he is worth my efforts and the efforts of all who believe that you must fight injustice where you find it.
• The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California in 1966. The first chapter in Louisiana was founded in 1970. Group members organized free breakfasts for poor black children as well as screening for sickle-cell anaemia and classes in black history. They organized against police brutality and black-on-black crime, in favour of free healthcare and slave reparations. They were raided many times by local police, who considered them domestic terrorists.
• In 1968, FBI director J Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panthers the single greatest threat to American national security. He launched a propaganda campaign – Cointelpro – to sow seeds of dissent within their ranks and to soil their public reputation. By the mid-1970s the movement had disintegrated. The same programme was used to destroy the American Indian Movement.
• Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, founders of America’s first-ever Black Panther chapter inside a prison, aimed to fight corruption and the sexual exploitation of fellow prisoners in Angola prison. They were convicted of killing a white guard there in 1972.
• The evidence against them included testimony by a known prison snitch who was paid a carton of cigarettes every week and given a reduced sentence. One of the eyewitnesses who identified Wallace and Woodfox as the murderers was blind. Physical evidence in the case – including bloodied clothes which reportedly belonged to Woodfox – wa lost prior to the trial. A bloody fingerprint found at the scene didn’t match either Woodfox or Wallace, but was never tested against other inmates.
• Woodfox and Wallace were sentenced to life in prison by all-white juries. The prison administration decided to put them in solitary, saying it was for their own protection. Both men say they doubt that explanation.
• Robert King Wilkerson arrived at Angola after the guard murder, but was told he was being investigated for involvement in it. Later, the prison administration accused him of killing another inmate – despite the fact another man had confessed and been convicted of the crime. Wilkerson was shackled and had his mouth taped shut during his trial. After 29 years in solitary confinement he was exonerated and released without compensation.
• Angola is an 18,000-acre prison farm where inmates – over 80 per cent of them black – work under armed guards in the fields. It has been a plantation since the 1700s, when hundreds of slaves worked the fields. Today inmates are paid 4 cents an hour. The prison sells the produce and livestock on the open market.
• Prisoners in solitary confinement are not permitted to work. They are allowed out of their 3-metre-square cells for just one hour every day, and for just three hours a week alone in a small exercise cage outside. Temperatures in the summer reach above 40 degrees, with 70 per cent humidity.
• The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of the Angola Three charging that 30 years in solitary is cruel and unusual punishment, and a violation of the Constitution. The suit calls for Wallace and Woodfox to be released into the general prison population and for all three men to be financially compensated. The case is pending.