Albert Woodfox, the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the US, held in isolation in a six-by-nine-foot cell almost continuously for 43 years, has been released from a Louisiana jail.Woodfox, who was kept in solitary following the 1972 murder of a prison guard for which he has always professed his innocence, marked his 69th birthday on Friday by being released from West Feliciana parish detention center. It was a bittersweet birthday present: the prisoner finally escaped a form of captivity that has widely been denounced as torture, and that has deprived him of all meaningful human contact for more than four decades.
For the duration of that time, Woodfox was held in the cell for 23 hours a day. In the single remaining hour, he was allowed out of the cell to go to the “exercise yard” – a small area of fenced concrete – but was shackled and kept alone there as well.
Last November James Dennis, a judge with the federal fifth circuit appeals court, described the conditions of Woodfox’s confinement. “For the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction,” he said.
In a statement released by his lawyers, Woodfox said that he would use his newfound liberty to campaign against the scourge of solitary confinement that at any one moment sees 80,000 American prisoners being held in isolation. “I can now direct all my efforts to ending the barbarous use of solitary confinement and will continue my work on that issue here in the free world.”
The prisoner’s release came after the state of Louisiana agreed to drop its threat to subject him to a third trial for the 1972 killing. Woodfox in turn pleaded no contest to lesser charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary.
The “no contest” plea is not an admission of guilt, and Woodfox continues to be not guilty of the main murder charge. He said that “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.”
Woodfox was one of the so-called “Angola 3”: three prisoners initially held in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, and who subscribed to the Black Panther movement and campaigned against segregation within the institution in the 1970s. His supporters contend that he was framed for the 1972 killing of the prison guard Brent Miller as revenge for his political activities.
His murder conviction was twice overturned – once in 1992 on grounds that he had received ineffective defense representation, and again in 2008 because of racial discrimination in setting up the grand jury that indicted him. Last year, Louisiana announced it would put him through a third trial despite the fact that all the key witnesses to the killing have since died. Woodfox’s lawyers argued the lack of witnesses would render such a retrial a legal mockery.
His two fellow Angola 3 allies were already freed. Robert King was released in 2001 after having his separate conviction overturned, and Herman Wallace, who spent almost 30 years in solitary confinement, was only allowed out of prison two days before he died in 2013.
“There was no logical reason that Louisiana kept him in solitary for so many years, for a crime in which all the evidence was undermined,” King told the Guardian.
“They did it as a war against the ideology of the Black Panthers and because they didn’t want to be seen to have been wrong all this time.”
Scientists have long warned about the dire effects caused by solitary confinement on prisoners even after a few days of such treatment, and several international bodies including the UN have called for it to be banned as a form of torture. The supreme court justice Anthony Kennedy has also spoken out about the practice, remarking that the side-effects of prolonged isolation include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts and behavior.
George Kendall, Woodfox’s attorney with Squire Patton Boggs LLP, said his client’s decades-long isolation was indefensible. “Albert survived the extreme and cruel punishment of 40-plus years in solitary confinement only because of his extraordinary strength and character. These inhumane practices must stop. We hope the Louisiana department of corrections will reform and greatly limit its use of solitary confinement as have an increasing number of jurisdictions around the country.”
Amnesty International USA, which long campaigned for his release, said that “nothing will truly repair the cruel, inhuman and degrading solitary confinement that the state of Louisiana inflicted upon him. But this belated measure of justice is something he has been seeking for more than half his life.”
In 2014, Woodfox described to a blogger the fear that wells up in him from being constantly alone. “I’m afraid I’m going to start screaming and not be able to stop,” he said.
“I’m afraid I’m going to turn into a baby and curl up in a fetal position and lay there like that day after day for the rest of my life. I’m afraid I’m going to attack my own body, maybe cut off my balls and throw them through the bars the way I’ve seen others do when they couldn’t take any more.
“No television or hobby craft or magazines or any of the other toys you call yourself allowing can ever lessen the nightmare of this hell you help to create and maintain.”
Woodfox’s release was raised at the White House press briefing on Friday. The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said: “Scientists tell us that prolonged incarceration in solitary confinement can have a debilitating and long-term impact on an individual’s mental health. If our ultimate goal in the criminal justice system is to give people a second chance after they’ve paid their debt to society we are basically setting them up to fail.”
Last month Barack Obama used his executive powers to ban solitary confinement for juveniles in all federal prisons. He has also commissioned a review into the use of solitary in the US.