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Albert Woodfox: ’43 years of solitary confinement and they did not break me’

Albert Woodfox has finally walked free after an incredible miscarriage of justice. Now he wants to end the ‘evil’ of forced isolation

It is difficult to imagine the mental anguish involved in spending 43 years in solitary confinement. Only one man – Albert Woodfox – has ever spent that long in isolation in an American prison, kept behind bars and cut off from all human contact.

On February 19, on his 69th birthday, Woodfox walked free of his cell, finally able to hug his brother Michel again. His 43-year nightmare was over. “I promised myself that I would not let them break me, not let them drive me insane,” he said upon his release.

Woodfox was one of three men – the Angola 3 – sentenced to life imprisonment back in 1974 for the killing of a prison guard two years earlier. It happened on the basis of some notoriously flimsy evidence – one witness reportedly bribed, another reportedly blind. The case has long been viewed as one of the United States’ most striking miscarriages of justice.

One of the three, Robert King, was released from Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison in 2001 after his conviction was overturned. Another, Herman Wallace, was freed in 2013 after his conviction was also overturned, only to die of a long-standing liver illness three days after his release.

Concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve the case now

And now Albert Woodfox, the last imprisoned member of the Angola 3, is finally free. His release comes with a complex history. His own murder conviction was overturned twice but the state of Louisiana wanted to put him through a third trial (despite all the key witnesses having died). Louisiana agreed to drop the third trial, and Woodfox in turn pleaded “no contest” to a lesser charge of manslaughter (“no contest” is not an admission of guilt).

“I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial but concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve the case now,” he explains.

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Regardless of the legal processes, Woodfox has been celebrating his new-found freedom with his family. He spent last week in New Orleans with his brother, his nieces and nephews, old friends and campaign supporters. He says it feels like he’s had “five big birthday parties” since he got out. Woodfox has also been able to visit the graves of his mother and father – something he was denied the chance to do when they died while he was locked up.

He plans to devote the rest of his life fighting for an end to solitary confinement in the US. “It’s an evil,” he says. “Solitary confinement is the most torturous experience a human being can be put through in prison. We have got to stop this, and having been a victim of it for so long myself, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Woodcox thanked the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, Amnesty International, and The Roddick Foundation in the UK for “supporting me through this long struggle”.

The Big Issue has championed the three men’s cases and raised human rights concerns about their treatment many times over the years. Both Anita and Gordon Roddick, the couple who helped establish The Big Issue 25 years ago, became an integral part of the campaign to free the three men. “How a human being can suffer as much and still be the noble spirit Albert is beats me,” says Big Issue founder and editor in chief John Bird. “It also beats me how such suffering can be visited upon a man who was never given a fair trial, whose prosecution would not have stood up in a court – unless the prosecution was tainted by racism and political hatred.”

BLACK PANTHERS

It’s worth remembering the strange circumstances and feverish politics that led to it happening in the first place. In 1971, King, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of armed robbery and sent to Angola. They formed a chapter of the Black Panther party in prison and began protesting against segregation and abuse, including the rape of young prisoners and ongoing violence by staff. Shortly after speaking out, they were accused of the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller.

Civil rights advocates claimed there was no physical evidence against the three men for the 1972 murder, arguing the main witness was bribed with a weekly carton of cigarettes and promised his freedom for testifying. Their lawyers also claimed another key witness was blind, and bloody fingerprints found at the scene were never tested against the rest of the prisoners.

It is history now, mercifully for Woodfox (above) and for King, now 73 and living in Texas. Yet the problem of solitary confinement – a practice condemned by the United Nations – remains huge. An estimated 80,000 Americans are held in isolation on any given day.

Several major academic studies have shown the devastating psychological impact of being caged in isolation. Woodfox, who was kept in a 6ft by 9ft cell with a concrete bunk and metal toilet, went through periods of panic attacks. But being able to read newspapers and magazines for two hours a day helped him stay sane. Woodfox knew of others in solitary who “just laid down in a foetal position and stopped communicating”.

President Barack Obama has taken a personal interest in prison reform, and solitary confinement in particular, during his last year in office. Last month he used executive powers to ban isolation for juveniles (anyone under 18) in federal prisons.

An estimated 80,000 Americans are held in isolation on any given day

Good news, says Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner at Amnesty International. But sadly the state by state nature of reform in America means there is still a long way to go. “There’s been a lot of joy since Albert’s release, and welcoming him home is also a chance to recommit ourselves to ending solitary confinement,” says Heiss.

“Unfortunately President Obama’s order is only binding for federal prisons but we hope it really sets a new benchmark,” she adds. “Different states have different standards. Some states like Colorado have made real progress but some states don’t even acknowledge that they are still using solitary confinement.”

For one man the long nightmare is finally over. For 80,000 others, it is a nightmare they continue to live out day after day.

BEYONCÉ AND THE COPS

The singer has turned the spotlight on police shootings… and the missing numbers

Whether by accident or design, Beyoncé has become a leading figurehead of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

Police unions across the US have gifted the singer counter-cultural credentials by threatening to boycott her concerts. They view her recent Super Bowl 50 half-time performance as “anti-police” because dancers’ uniforms were a tribute to the Black Panther movement. There’s also her new Formation music video, in which Beyoncé is seen lying on the top of a police car (pictured below) in flood water (a nod to New Orleans), as well as a clip of police officers with their hands in the air and the words “stop shooting us” spraypainted on a wall.

Members of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police urged other officers to join their boycott of Beyoncé’s April concert. The Raleigh Police Protective Association decided not to boycott her concert in North Carolina but the union boss said “we do have concerns over the anti-law enforcement images”. The last time unions threatened to boycott concerts was in 2000, when a New York union almost pulled cops from a Bruce Springsteen show because of his song American Skin (41 Shots) about the police killing of Amadou Diallo.

The Black Lives Matter movement took off in autumn 2014 in response to the killing of black teenager Mike Brown Jr in Ferguson, Missouri, and ongoing police shootings of unarmed black people in America.

The shocking lack of data on the number of shootings caused The Guardian US and Washington Post to launch a crowd-sourced project called The Counted. At the end of 2015, the project recorded a tally of 1,134 deaths at the hands of police in a single year. The head of the FBI admitted it was “embarrassing and ridiculous” that media organisations had more information on police shootings than the government.

“It’s still a black hole, happening in the shadows of our justice system,” says Jasmine Heiss. “We don’t have data in many states but we know there are far too many body bags and there needs to be fundamental police reform.”

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