On Friday (Feb. 19), his 69th birthday, Albert Woodfox became the last of the “Angola 3” to be released from prison after spending 43 years in solitary confinement. The longest stretch of solitary imprisonment in U.S. history, Woodfox was charged in the murder of then 23-year-old prison guard Brent Miller, who was stabbed to death during a riot at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also referred to as Angola. After reaching a deal where he pleaded no contest to manslaughter and aggravated burglary, Woodfox was sentenced to 43 years, but freed for having been in prison for 45.
In an interview with NOLA.com, Woodfox, who maintains his innocence to this day, recalled himself and the two other prisoners who were placed in solitary confinement after Miller’s death, Robert King and Herman Wallace, holding onto their faith for justice. Wallace was released in 2013, and died three days later from liver cancer complications. King was released in 2001, after 29 years in solitary. Woodfox shared the mindstate of being confined to the six-by-nine foot cell for 23 hours a day for over four decades.
“You pace, you know. Walk up and down the cell…And you fight the urge to take off all your clothes, ’cause…you feel like everything is weighing you down,” he said. “You go through this psychological self-analysis and then you talking to yourself, and telling yourself that you strong enough…Just trying to push these walls back and the ceiling back with the force of mind.”
Upon his release, Woodfox released a statement thanking everyone who has supported him in his battle for freedom:
“I want to thank my brother Michel for sticking with me all these years, and Robert King, who wrongly spent nearly 30 years in solitary. I could not have survived without their courageous support, along with the support of my dear friend Herman Wallace, who passed away in 2013. I also wish to thank the many members of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, Amnesty International, and the Roddick Foundation, all of whom supported me through this long struggle. Lastly, I thank William Sothern, Rob McDuff and my lawyers at Squire Patton Boggs and Sanford Heisler Kimpel for never giving up. Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case now and obtain my release with this no-contest plea to lesser charges. I hope the events of today will bring closure to many.”
The story of the “Angola 3” has led to a debate on the constitutionality of solitary confinement, as Woodfox and others campaign against it, calling it cruel and unusual punishment. Most recently, President Obama has enacted an executive order to ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison. U.S. Rep. Ced Richmond is also among those fighting against solitary, calling it “inhumane.”
“The story of the Angola 3 has shined a light on one of the most inhumane practices in our criminal justice system,” U.S. Rep. Ced Richmond said in the statement. “What happened to Mr. Woodfox was cruel and I don’t think it will ever be easy to understand, but that process will only be eased if we do all we can to ensure that no one else has to endure the same.”
Woodfox credits the teachings of Malcolm X, Dr. Matin Luther King Jr and the Black Panther party for preventing him from becoming “institutionalized” during his imprisonment. He now hopes to become a social activist alongside King.
“I learned how strong the human spirit can be, that the change has to come from within. I learned that although human beings do horrible things sometimes, they still have worth,” he told NOLA.com. “And that there should be a certain amount of dignity given to every human being even though they’re in prison,” he said. “And that’s not the way it is now.”