Indomitable spirit of love
At a time globally when the character of so many among the elite have come into question, we have a contrasting story of one of those most marginalised by society. One, whose transformational life exemplifies the best of human qualities.
Albert Woodfox died last Thursday aged 75, six years on from his release after more than four decades in “Angola”, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest and arguably most notorious prison the United States.
Woodfox had spent most of those years in solitary confinement — the longest time in American history — and he used much of his new freedom to campaign globally to end that kind of inhumanity in the treatment of the incarcerated.
The Angola Prison was formerly a slave plantation and reportedly maintained aspects of that inhumane regime into this century. In 1971, the American Bar Association, representing US Lawyers, described Angola as being “medieval, squalid and horrifying”. In 1975, US District Judge Frank Polozola stated that the prison was in “a state of emergency”.
Woodfox, who confirms that he was no saint, had been incarcerated at Angola in 1969 after being convicted of armed robbery in New Orleans. He had initially escaped to New York and when captured there, in the Harlem “lock-up” he learnt first-hand about the Black Panther movement — an encounter that proved transformational.
Initially at Angola, Woodfox simply accepted the level of corruption and violence that permeated the culture of the prison, reinforced by the hierarchy among the wardens and those imprisoned. However, when a teenage cellmate was subjected to a gruesome rape, Albert was moved to take action. Woodfox quietly engaged two fellow inmates — Herman Wallace and Robert King — and they organised a chapter of the Black Panther Party. Their initial, explicit intention was to end rape and enslavement of the weaker and younger inmates — at least in their section of Angola.
The insurgent movement gained some early success and they were able to address some of the most ridiculous circumstances through boycotts and sitdown protests. Of course, this challenge to authority did not go unanswered and the prison hierarchy was able to gain the support of the cliques among those incarcerated who most benefited from the corrupt system.
In 1972, there was a period of violence in which one warden was burnt to death and another, Brent Miller, was stabbed to death. Woodfox and Wallace, two of the three Black Panther leaders, were charged with the stabbing and convicted. Additionally, the third Panther, King, was convicted of another murder. All three were assigned to solitary confinement, effectively limiting their influence with the several hundred fellow prisoners.
Their circumstances began to exemplify the Reverend Martin Luther King’s favourite quote: “Truth pressed to earth will rise again.”
Woodfox’s conviction was overturned on appeal in 1993, but he was reconvicted in 1998. Thankfully, by this time a global campaign that included Amnesty International pushed for justice for the “Angola Three”. Note that this campaign was supported even by the widow of Brent Miller, the guard murdered at Angola.
The global campaign bore fruit in 2001 when King was released, and then in 2013 when Herman Wallace was released. Woodfox was released in 2016 after 45 years of imprisonment, 43 of which were spent in solitary confinement.
In 2019, he published a memoir that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, titled Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades of Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.
Albert Woodfox credited the lessons that he had first ignored, from his mother, the inspiration of the Black Panther movement and his readings of the likes of Nelson Mandela for maintaining his own indomitable spirit of love for humanity.
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda