The Current

'It destroys your humanity': Albert Woodfox on surviving 44 years in solitary confinement

Albert Woodfox spent more than forty years in solitary confinement for a 1972 murder he says he didn't commit. He speaks to Anna Maria Tremonti about how he survived decades inside a 9-by-6-foot cell, in one of the most notorious prisons in the United States.

Albert Woodfox says no good comes from this 'brutal form of torture'

Albert Woodfox was convicted for the 1972 murder of a guard in the notorious Angola prison. (Ben Shannon/CBC)
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Warning: This story contains references to sexual violence.

A man who spent 44 years in solitary confinement says that the hardest day was finding out his request to attend his mother's funeral had been denied.

"I had one of the most severe attacks of claustrophobia that I've ever had," said Albert Woodfox.

"The pain was so intense, it was so deep, I had never felt that kind of pain before," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "This was different from physical pain. My very soul ached."

"In 44 years and 10 months of solitary confinement, it was the first and the last time I wanted to scream."

Woodfox's mother died of cancer in 1994, by which time he had been in solitary confinement in the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola prison, for more than 20 years.

He was convicted in 1973 for the murder of a prison guard — he still maintains his innocence — and would remain in solitary confinement until 2016.

For all that time, he spent 23 hours a day in small cell, measuring 6-feet wide, 9-feet long, and 12-feet high.

I've observed a lot of men go insane. I've seen men cut themselves.- Albert Woodfox on the toll that solitary confinement can take

Woodfox described solitary as "the most brutal form of torture that's non-physical."

It can feel as if "the walls are closing in, and the very clothes on your body feel as though they're smothering you," he said.

"Most people panic … I've observed a lot of men go insane. I've seen men cut themselves, or break their fingers up or whatever to get out, to go the hospital, even if it's for a couple hours."

Albert Woodfox has written about his time in solitary confinement in his new book. (HarperCollins Canada)

Woodfox said that being held like this indefinitely can prove too much for some.

"I've seen men kill themselves," he said.

Woodfox has written about his time in prison in his new book Solitary: My Story of Transformation and Hope.

The issue of solitary confinement made Canadian headlines last month, when the Court of Appeal for Ontario banned isolating prisoners for more than 15 days. The ruling stated that any longer amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The federal government's Bill C-83 aims to eliminate the use of solitary in Canada's correctional facilities. Currently before the Senate, it would retain separate housing for inmates who pose a danger to themselves or others, while still giving them access to rehabilitation, mental health care and other programs.

Woodfox told Tremonti that "there's absolutely no positive, penological reason for using solitary confinement, especially for decades."

'I was raised in a racist society'

Woodfox grew up in New Orleans, where poverty led him into a life of petty crime.

In 1971, aged 22, he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 50 years in Angola prison, a facility notorious as one of the most vicious in North America.

He entered a prison that was "very violent, very racist, very segregated," he said.

Albert Woodfox, seen in a photo previously obtained by CBC's As It Happens, was convicted in the 1972 killing of a guard. (Amnesty International)

"There was a thriving sex-slave market, where young kids coming in — 16, 17 years old — were being raped and forced to live as sex slaves," he said.

But while in prison, Woodfox became a member of the Black Panthers, and began to advocate for prisoner rights. He and other members formed anti-rape gangs to stop the sexual abuse, and pushed for better conditions and education for prisoners, and access to legal advice.

"I began to realize that I was not a bad person, that I was raised in a racist society, and that a lot of the things I did to survive were preordained by those in power."

The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola has a reputation for violence. (Judi Bottoni/The Associated Press)

Accused men 'had no idea the depths of hatred'

In 1972, a guard named Brent Miller was found stabbed to death inside the prison.

Woodfox and fellow inmate Herman Wallace were convicted for murder, despite no physical evidence to link them to Miller's death.

Woodfox maintains he did not commit the murder, and his conviction was motivated by his — and Wallace's — membership of the Black Panthers, and advocacy for other inmates.

The men initially believed that an investigation would clear their names.

"As politically aware as we were, we were also very naive," Woodfox said.

"We had no idea the depths of hatred, not just because we were Panthers, but because we were black men."

Along with another prisoner — Robert King, who was convicted of a separate prison murder — the men became known as the Angola 3.

Each would spend decades in solitary, as advocates including Amnesty International sought their release.

Albert Woodfox was in solitary confinement for more than four decades for a crime he didn’t commit. 1:10

King was the first to be released in 2001, following 29 years in solitary confinement. In 2013, Wallace was released on humanitarian grounds because he had advanced cancer. He died three days later.

Woodfox was released in 2016, when he accepted a plea deal. He walked free on his 69th birthday.

He said he's angry that half of his life was taken away "not because of something I had done, but because of my political beliefs."

Woodfox in studio with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. He told her that he wants to tell the world about the damage that solitary confinement can do. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

But while other men became institutionalised or simply gave up, he said that he, Wallace and King "continued to fight, we continued to try to be examples of what you can be."

"Instead of shrivelling away, I built character. I built moral, principled values," he said.

"I made a commitment to be the kind of human being I am now."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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