For the first time in nearly half a century, Albert Woodfox was allowed to sit up front.
The 69-year-old member of the Angola 3, who was released Friday after spending most of his life in solitary confinement, said one of his first impressions of the world outside prison was having a wide, front-seat view of the landscape as his brother drove him away from jail.
“It felt strange because I was sitting in the front of his car rather than the back of a van,” Woodfox told The Advocate on Saturday in New Orleans, just over 24 hours since his historic release.
Woodfox, who was believed to be the longest-serving inmate in solitary confinement in U.S. history, walked free from the West Feliciana Parish Jail Friday afternoon after quietly pleading no contest that morning to manslaughter in the 1972 killing of prison guard Brent Miller.
He also pleaded no contest to aggravated burglary in an incident related to the slaying at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, resulting in a combined sentence of nearly 43 years. Since he’d already served that amount, he was released within hours.
Woodfox — who became the face of an international movement to end solitary confinement, which to its critics is a sadistic and ineffective form of punishment — is now in the process of figuring out what’s next.
He started Saturday by laying roses on the grave of his mother, who died in the early 1990s and whose funeral he was not permitted to attend while at Angola. The former truck driver, who as a child lived on his grandparent’s farm in North Carolina and resided briefly in Los Angeles, moved to New Orleans at 13.
“I was a child of the street,” said the soft-spoken Woodfox, whose eyes frequently defaulted to a slightly downcast gaze. With barely any time to adjust to life outside of jail, he seemed comfortable, and quietly confident, sunken into an armchair Saturday.
In 1969 he escaped from an Orleans Parish courthouse and wound up in New York, where he was first exposed to the Black Panther Party. He was eventually re-captured.
“But I always said the voice of the Panthers is stronger than the voice of the street,” he said. He later joined the Black Panther Party and said he developed his political awareness from his interactions with the activists in New York and from reading.
“There was kind of like, this invincibility about them. There was no fear, things that I had been unaccustomed to seeing in the black community,” he said.
By the time he was extradited to Louisiana, the Panther affiliation earned Woodfox a stamp on his file: “black militant.” It was this label, a sort of red-flag for jailers, that he has argued spurred the blame for Miller’s killing, for which he says he’s innocent, and what he says was punitive separation from other inmates.
He painted a barbaric picture of life at Angola in the early 1970s.
“Almost every day somewhere in the prison someone was getting killed, or stabbed or bludgeoned to death with some kind of weapon,” he said.
And underlying the stabbings and killings was the sexual slave market, he said, that fueled a system of physical violence, bribery and psychological control.
“They used to call them ‘fresh fish,’” he said, referring to the new inmates who were shipped in every Thursday. “They would come down, and the predators would be waiting on them, and the younger they was, the easier it was for them to be turned into penitentiary sex slaves,” he said.
Prison guards not only knew about the prostitution, they benefited from it, he said. Just like in sex work outside of prison, inmate pimps could make money off the other prisoners whose bodies they controlled, and they’d pay correctional officers in return for favored treatment, Woodfox said.
Woodfox spent over four decades alone in a windowless 6-by-9 foot cell at Angola. He was only allowed out for an hour a day. He wasn’t allowed to have a prison job, and he ate all his meals in the cell, which was separated from a hallway by metal bars.
Inmates were to remain a few feet from those bars at all times, he said.
Woodfox could see a television down a hall, and at times had access to a typewriter as well as books.
Access to some of these amenities, state officials had argued, meant Woodfox’s arrangement shouldn’t be termed solitary confinement.
Woodfox, along with two other inmates, Herman Wallace and Robert King Wilkerson, now known as Robert King, came to be known as the Angola 3 for their long stays in solitary. King was released in 2001; Wallace died in 2013 just days after he was set free.
Though Woodfox spent most of his prison time at Angola, he was most recently being held in the West Feliciana Parish Jail while he awaited a third trial.
Asked about his thoughts on the penal system, Woodfox said, “prisons have become industries.”
“These corporations come there and take advantage of slave labor,” he said.
Woodfox’s liberation was heralded as triumph not only by his family and prison-reform advocates but also by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who said in a statement Friday the no-contest plea — which he said functioned as an admission of guilt — brought justice and closure to the ordeal. That stance was a noticeable departure from his predecessor, Buddy Caldwell, who called Woodfox a “career criminal” and wanted to try him for murder a third time.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, praised Friday’s actions, saying in a statement, “The story of the Angola 3 has shined a light on one of the most inhumane practices in our criminal justice system.”
Richmond helped introduce legislation last year to reduce the use of solitary confinement, which he says set momentum for President Barack Obama’s executive order this year banning the practice for juveniles and limiting it for low-level offenders in federal prisons.
But Friday was a different kind of day for Miller’s family, who wiped away tears in the St. Francisville courtroom and said they had no say in the decision to allow for Woodfox’s release.
“We were played,” said Miller’s sister Wanda Callender, who’d sat through two earlier trials resulting in guilty verdicts for Woodfox on second-degree murder, one in 1973 and another in 1998, and believed those convictions were legitimate. The judgments were thrown out because the grand juries that delivered the indictments were found to be problematic.
Woodfox still has a pending civil case in federal court on the issue of solitary confinement. A June 29 trial date has been set in that matter, said George Kendall, one of Woodfox’s attorneys.
Woodfox said he plans to start a community-based organization to aid people recently released from prison and to persuade lawmakers to move forward with progressive prison reform.
And he also hopes to correct the picture that’s been made of him as violent troublemaker. He claims he went almost 20 years without a disciplinary write-up.
“I’m not the monster that I was portrayed to be,” he said.