NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Albert Woodfox, a former inmate who spent decades in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison and then became an advocate for prison reform after his release, died Thursday of complications from COVID-19, said his family. He was 75 years old.
Woodfox and two other men became known as the “Angola Three” for their decades-long stints in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and other prisons. In 2016, Woodfox did not contest manslaughter in the 1972 death of prison guard Brent Miller and was released after roughly half a century in prison, almost entirely in solitary confinement. Woodfox has always maintained his innocence in Miller’s death.
Carine Williams, one of Woodfox’s longtime attorneys, said Woodfox contracted the coronavirus in early July but rebounded. Then, about a week ago, he began to suffer from shortness of breath and was admitted to a hospital in New Orleans. Doctors were initially optimistic about its effectiveness, Williams said. When his condition worsened, he was intubated and never regained consciousness.
“With heavy hearts, we write to share that our partner, brother, father, grandfather, comrade and friend, Albert Woodfox, passed away this morning,” the family said. “Whether you knew him as Fox, Shaka, Cinque or Albert, he knew you as family. Please know that your care, compassion, friendship, love and support sustained Albert and comforted him.
Woodfox first entered prison in 1965 for armed robbery. Then in 1972, immediately after Miller’s body was found in an empty prison dormitory, authorities put him in solitary confinement where he was kept in “extended solitary confinement” every 90 days for decades. Woodfox and two other prisoners – Robert King and Herman Wallace – became known as the Angola Three due to their long periods of solitary confinement.
Woodfox and Wallace said they faced harsh treatment, including solitary confinement, as a result of their political activism. They had helped establish a prison branch of the Black Panther Party in Angola in 1971, organized protests and staged strikes for better conditions.
Officials said they were being kept in solitary confinement because their Black Panther Party activism would otherwise excite inmates at the maximum-security prison farm, about 80 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.
Despite those decades confined to a cell 6ft (1.83m) wide by 9ft (2.74m) long for 23 hours a day, Williams said it was a matter of survival for him not to not get lost in anger or bitterness.
In the book titled “Solitary” published after his release from prison, Woodfox wrote how, in his forties, he chose to take his pain and turn it into compassion.
“Whenever I’ve felt pain, no matter how it originated, I always promised myself that I would never do anything that would cause anyone else to suffer from the pain I was feeling at that moment. . I still had moments of bitterness and anger. But in that moment I had the wisdom to know that bitterness and anger are destructive,” he wrote. “I devoted myself to building things, not tearing them down.”
Wallace, who was convicted with Woodfox of murder in Miller’s death, died days after a judge freed him in 2014 and granted him a new trial. King was released in 2001 after his conviction for the death of a fellow inmate in 1973 was overturned.
At the time of his release, Woodfox was awaiting a third trial for Miller’s death after previous convictions were thrown out by federal courts on grounds including racial bias in the selection of a grand jury foreman. In a statement at the time, Woodfox said he was eager to prove his innocence in court, but concerns about his health and age “have led me to resolve this matter now and secure my release with this plea of no contest for lesser charges.”
He said at the time that he wanted to visit the grave of his mother, who died while he was in prison. Woodfox said he was not allowed to attend the funeral.
After his release, Woodfox first moved to Houston, then about a year later moved back to New Orleans where he had grown up in the city’s Treme neighborhood, his brother Michael Mable said.
In New Orleans, he enjoyed walking the levee with his partner and at one point – as Woodfox described it to Williams – he was adopted by a lost dog he found. Woodfox loved the outdoors and visited Yosemite National Park after his release, Williams said.
His lawyer said that on the first day of his release, she noticed that he kept touching his wrists: “For him, it was so fun and beautiful not to have chains on his wrists”.
In the years following his release, Woodfox frequently spoke publicly about his life in prison and his opinions on issues such as prison reforms or racial injustice. His book titled “Solitary” detailed his teenage years when he was frequently arrested in New Orleans and his time in prison. The book, written with Leslie George, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 2019.
Mable said that when Woodfox first got out of prison, he struggled a bit but never “let his spirit stay in prison.” He continued to advocate for people in prison and brought to light issues such as mass incarceration or disparities in how blacks and whites were sentenced.
Mable said other men might have lost their minds living in such a small cell for so long, but his brother was determined the experience wouldn’t break him.
“He wasn’t bitter and angry. He just wanted a change. He wanted justice. It was not justice for himself. It was for every inmate there,” Mable said.
In his book, Woodfox wrote that he was often asked what he would change in his life.
“My answer is always the same: ‘Not a single thing.’ Everything I’ve been through has made me the man I am today. I had to be a better person, a wiser person, a more disciplined person to survive,” he wrote. “I paid a heavy price”
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This story has been corrected to show that Woodfox contracted the coronavirus in July, not June.
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