Imagine more than 40 years in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day, in a 6-by-9 cell in one of the most brutal penal institutions in America, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

That’s Albert Woodfox’s story, told in “Solitary: My Journey of Transformation and Hope” written with Leslie George.

How do you survive the loneliness, the isolation of such a cruel and damaging form of punishment? Especially when you know you are innocent of the crime that put you there?

Only one man in America has survived such an ordeal, with the scars and strength to prove it.

When you visit Albert Woodfox’s home in New Orleans East, the first thing you notice are the panther figurines on the tables in the dining and living rooms. A teal Black Panther flag hangs on the living room wall, a symbol of the identity that sustained Woodfox through years of incarceration.

Photos of friends and family are proudly displayed. A print depicting fists raised in a black power salute hangs on another wall. When Woodfox first discovered the Panthers, he writes, “It was as if a light went on in a room inside me that I hadn’t known existed.” The 10 principles of the Panthers, its insistence on dignity and equality and social justice, would give him strength over the dark years to come.

Woodfox was serving a 50-year sentence for armed robbery in Angola when a prison guard, Brent Miller, was killed in 1972. Along with fellow Panther Herman Wallace, Woodfox was convicted of that crime and sentenced to life in solitary confinement despite a lack of evidence and the men’s insistence on their innocence.

With the aid of dedicated lawyers and prison reform activists, they spent decades working to get that conviction overturned. Woodfox was released in 2016, on his 69th birthday.

What did Woodfox hold onto over the years? Friendship, most of all. Woodfox and Wallace along with Robert Hilary King, the trio in long-term solitary confinement that became known as the Angola Three, bonded together, looked out for one another, shared what they had, established an unbreakable trust.

Wallace died of cancer in 2013, a few days after his release from prison; King got out in 2001. He and Woodfox are in close touch. “I talked with him this morning,” Woodfox said. “I’ll be seeing him soon at a Panther alumni event.” The three had a motto — “Never touching, always connected.”

Woodfox doesn’t gloss over the early parts of his life, which led to two brief stints in Angola in the ’60s when he was a teenager. He met his father only once. His mother struggled to keep the family cared for and together, and the young man was out on the streets of Treme, coming up with his own hustles.

He writes, “I’d seen guys in my neighborhood come back from Angola throughout my childhood. They were given the highest respect. I thought it would be an honor to go there.”

An armed robbery conviction put Woodfox in Angola for the third time.

As Woodfox settled into a 50-year sentence, he began reading the writings of James Baldwin, Nelson Mandela, Frantz Fanon, Eldredge Cleaver and Malcolm X. And in a chapter called “My Greatest Achievement,” he describes teaching a fellow inmate to read.

He also points to acts of resistance — a 45-day hunger strike rather than eat dirty food that had been pushed under a cell door — that inspired change. Food slots were installed in cell doors as a result.

His activism extended to resistance to strip searches, advocating for better medical care, protecting young prisoners from the prison’s rape culture — the abuses were many and the chance of reform was slim.

So many parts of this story are unforgettable and none more so than Woodfox’s internal struggle. He battles claustrophobia, holding onto his sanity, and to control fear and anger. His details in the book are tactile. Readers will feel the brutal heat of a Louisiana summer, the bruising cold of a concrete floor, the unbreathable air after guards release tear gas. But, as Woodfox says, he turned his cell into “a university, a hall of debate, a law school.” In his 40s, he says, he became a man of compassion, a man with a moral center.

Woodfox and his "Solitary" writing partner, George, met in 1998 while she was a reporter and producer with Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program. As soon as he was released from prison, Woodfox and George began the hard work of writing the book, going through notes and articles, and talking for hours about his time in Angola.

Woodfox lights up with the smile at the mention of George.

“She made me face it all,” he said. “She never let me off the hook. And if I didn’t want to talk about something, she kept pushing.”

Woodfox has a larger voice in the conversation about prison reform now. He’s spoken at Harvard and Yale and other universities, the Innocence Project, and Amnesty International events all over the world. 

“This is my life now,” he said. “I became an activist in Angola, but now it’s in a different way.”

His book sends a clear message to the reader: “Don’t turn away from what happens in American prisons.

“To those of you who are just entering the world of social struggle, welcome.”


Book event

WHAT: Albert Woodfox appears in conversation with Emily Maw of Innocence Project New Orleans and signs “Solitary: My Story of Transformation and Hope”

WHEN: 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 20

WHERE: New Orleans Public Library Main Library, 219 Loyola Ave.

Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM.