The late rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur (1971-1996) soberly noted that prison kills one’s spirit. Each day becomes a repeat of the day before with instructions from guards and strictly observed times for each day’s events. Shakur served eight months in 1995 being bailed out while his conviction was on appeal. Tragically, he died on September 13, 1996, without the appeal having been decided. His story is unique but there are millions of others who are still in prison, serving extensive sentences in some of the country’s most dangerous facilities. Albert Woodfox (1947-2022) was one of those people, having served forty years in prison with most of the time served at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola also known as “the Farm”. Woodfox’s story stands out because he not only served four decades but spent that time in solitary confinement for crimes he did not commit. This is the story of his life and time behind bars as he put his criminal past behind him and transformed himself into a civil rights activist and advocate for prison reform.
The story begins in Louisiana where Woodfox was born to a mother who could not read and write, and a father who did not stay around to raise his son. But his mother meets another man who becomes his stepfather and fills the void left by his biological father. However, the happy family did not last, and a series of events fractured the once happy household, changing the lives of everyone for good. And it is not long before Woodfox begins his career on the street with drugs and petty crimes which result in early yet short prison sentences. But ironically, the crime that sends him to Angola was not one he was a participant in. Despite his conviction, he should have only served a few years there before being released. But that all changed on April 17, 1972, when corrections officer Brent Miller was stabbed to death. Woodfox did not know it at the time, but the murder of this guard would be the catalyst for keeping him behind bars for forty years.
Miller’s murder is terrible, and readers should be aware that his last moments were nothing short of horrific. Woodfox becomes an immediate suspect due to his clashes with prison officials over living conditions. Even before Miller’s death, Woodfox was on the warden’s radar and the reasons for this will shock readers and force them to question whether prison is truly for rehabilitation. The conditions he describes are inhumane, but Angola has always had a reputation for being a place you do not want to go to. Despite knowing this, I still found myself aghast at what I was reading. Admittedly, when I read that Miller had been attacked, I did not think Woodfox was responsible. In fact, he was the last person I suspected. For him to murder Miller would have been completely insane due to his high profile and the fact that he had never met the guard. But there is far more to the story that will leave readers shaking their heads and questioning the criminal justice system.
The saying a “jury of your peers” is supposed to carry significant weight but as can be seen in the book, for Woodfox and others accused of Miller’s murder, the State of Louisiana had other ideas. And we cannot overlook the issue of race which plays heavily in the events that follow. Woodfox had turned to the teachings of the Black Panther Party during his incarceration and had come to understand how his life was affected by the lack of a stable home. But that did not deter him from helping other inmates change their lives. Further, he speaks on a topic that will be upsetting to some readers and that is the dehumanizing experience of sexual assault. If there are any doubts that incarceration destroys what is left of someone, Woodfox removes it here. Frankly, what he describes is out of control but flourished with the knowledge and cooperation of guards whose goal was to break each man down to a shadow of his former self. But as the author explains, he refused to be broken and along with others committed to their cause, remained strong in the face of unrelenting racial hostility and pressure from prison officials.
Unbelievably, Woodfox was convicted of Miller’s murder with two co-defendants. As someone who works in the legal field, I could not believe my eyes. To say that the investigation into Miller’s death was “sub-par” would be an understatement. In fact, there was hardly any investigation, and the real murderer never paid for the crime. Officials had who they wanted to be convicted and they succeeded. But, over time the story falls apart and attracts the attention of people outside the Angola becoming aware of the horrors the prison system inflicts on inmates. And even those who initially believed in Woodfox’s guilt, change their opinion after learning the truth about Miller’s murder. The efforts of his supporters were not in vain, and he does get a new trial but is convicted again for Miller’s murder. But the way the trial is conducted and the ways in which the prosecutors present their case is absolutely infuriating. Yet Woodfox remains unbroken. But that is not to say he didn’t suffer emotionally as well. He openly discusses his frustrations and the impact on his mental health from the deaths of loved ones he could not be with in their last moments.
While Woodfox is focused on maintaining his sanity behind bars, outside of Angola interest in his case increases. He and his two co-defendants, Robert King, and Herman Wallace, become known as the Angola 3. King was released 2001 after accepting a plea deal which is explained in the book and Wallace died in 2013. I must warn readers that Wallace’s story is tough to read and the way the State of Louisiana treated this man even at the end of his time in Angola is surreal. Following his release, King becomes the spokesman for Woodfox’s release and the movement to change Angola. The author receives a guardian angel in the form of former U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana Judge James J. Brady (1944-2017) whose commitment to the law provides hope for Woodfox to keep his faith. This part of the story is interesting because we are witnesses to the legal battles between Brady and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, each wrestling with the questions of Habeas Corpus, cruel and unusual punishment, and Woodfox’s right to fair trial. But in the background is the book’s antagonist, former Louisiana Attorney General James D. Caldwell, also known as Buddy Caldwell. His actions towards Woodfox are disheartening. Woodfox was eventually released but not in the way he would have preferred. However, it brought an end of over forty years of confinement, and he was able to live out his days free from Angola. Sadly, in August 2022, Woodfox became another victim of the Covid-19 virus and passed away at the age of seventy-five. He is now gone but this story will live forever and remind us of the horrors of solitary confinement, prosecutorial misconduct, racial injustice, and the tolls they take on one’s physical and mental health.
“My fear was not of death itself, but a death without meaning.” —Huey Newton (1942-1989)