(Books of The Times)
Albert Woodfox grew up poor in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood. He didn’t know his father. His mother, who could not read or write, sometimes prostituted herself to keep food on the table for Albert and his siblings.
He turned to crime young. For a while his misdeeds were on the mild side, the sort of antics that Chuck Berry referred to in his autobiography as “hubcap ripping and parked-car creeping, dime-store clipping and window peeping.”
They got more serious. By the time he was in his teens, he was breaking into houses and convenience stores. He stole cars, mugged people, joined a gang and got a heroin habit. He once broke out of prison and, on his way home, appropriated a cement mixer, roaring away at 10 mph. He was caught because he left his wallet on the dashboard.
Woodfox spends the first sections of his uncommonly powerful memoir, “Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.,” objectively detailing his young life of crime. This is not easy reading. What life did not give him, he was determined to take.
“I robbed people, scared them, threatened them, intimidated them,” he writes. “I stole from people who had almost nothing. My people. Black people. I broke into their homes and took possessions they worked hard for; took their wallets out of their pockets. I beat people up. I was a chauvinist pig.”
The first time he was sent to Angola — the notorious maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana, named after the plantation that once occupied its land — he got a tattoo from another inmate: Charles Neville, the musician. That was an eight-month stretch.
In 1969, when he was 22, Woodfox was sentenced to 50 years for armed robbery. With good behavior he expected to be released in half that time.
In various prisons he’d met members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They gave him books to read and a historical sense of his people and his past. He learned about the racial iniquities (all-white juries and police forces, for starters) of the American justice system.
By the time he got back to Angola, he writes, “I was a black man with a long prison sentence ahead of me. Inside, however, everything had changed. I had morals, principles and values I never had before.” He adds: “I would never be a criminal again.”
But April 17, 1972, a white prison guard named Brent Miller was killed at Angola. Woodfox and another member of the Panthers were accused of the slaying, despite an utter lack of evidence. A sham trial commenced, and they were found guilty and sentenced to life in solitary.
For a crime he did not commit, Woodfox would spend more than four decades in solitary confinement: 23 hours a day in a 6-by-9-foot cell. He recounts consistently brutal treatment by guards, rats and vermin, deadly heat and no way out of solitary for good behavior. His memoir is the story of how he survived.
The “legacy of slavery” was everywhere at Angola, Woodfox writes. When he arrived it was segregated. White prisoners mostly worked indoors while black prisoners worked the fields, often cutting sugar cane under the watch of guards with shotguns.
The prison had a rape culture. The day new inmates arrived was called “fresh fish day,” and sexual predators lined up to view the goods. “If you were raped at Angola, or what was called ‘turned out,’ your life in prison was virtually over,” he writes.
Woodfox was tough enough to protect himself. He later began to shield other men from rape on principle, often taking beatings in the process.
The heart of “Solitary” is Woodfox’s decision to “take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate.” He read legal books and began to win lawsuits over cruel and unusual punishment. His memoir is strewn with words from others he read while in prison — Nelson Mandela, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass.
He taught men to read. He organized umpteen hunger strikes. He made a difference in many men’s lives.
“Solitary” is a profound book about friendship. Along with Robert King and Herman Wallace, Woodfox became known as part of the “Angola 3.” These men were mostly kept separated from one another but managed to remain in contact. “I didn’t know how so much loyalty and devotion could exist between three men,” Woodfox writes.
Slowly, word of their decades in solitary began to leak out. This story has many heroes, men and women who worked to bring the men’s story to the public and to demonstrate their innocence in the killing of the prison guard. Some of them are lawyers.
Others are those like the late Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, an early supporter of the Angola 3 who devoted a great deal of time and money to their cause. The prisoners were the subject of a documentary, “In the Land of the Free” (2010), and Amnesty International published a report on them in 2011.
This story, which Woodfox has written with Leslie George, is told simply but not tersely. If it sometimes induces claustrophobia, well, it’s meant to. Very often the painful details, and the author’s own humanity in the face of them, start to make your chest feel too small. Only occasionally, when recounting the details of Woodfox’s many appeals and retrials and attempts at retrials, does this memoir perhaps necessarily step into the weeds.
In 2007, a Louisiana judge wrote that, by 1999, “these plaintiffs had been in extended lockdown more than anyone in Angola’s history, and more than any other living prisoner in the entire United States.”
Wallace had terminal liver cancer and died in 2013, days after he was released from prison when a judge ruled that his original indictment in the killing of the guard had been unconstitutional. King was released from prison in 2001. Woodfox remained behind bars until 2016.
“We knew that we were not locked up in a cell 23 hours a day because of what we did,” he writes. “We were there because of who we were.”
Woodfox reminds us, in “Solitary,” of the tens of thousands of men, women and children in solitary confinement in the United States. This is torture of a modern variety.
If the ending of this book does not leave you with tears pooling down into your clavicles, you are a stronger person than I am. More lasting is Woodfox’s conviction that the American justice system is in dire need of reform.
He doesn’t quote Dostoyevsky, but I will: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
‘Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.’
By Albert Woodfox with Leslie George.
433 pages. Grove Press. $26.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.