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Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Solitary
Solitary
by Albert Woodfox

Paperback (3 Dec 2019), 448 pages.
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN-13: 9780802148308
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Winner of the 2019 BookBrowse Debut Author Award

A chronicle of rare power and humanity that proves the better spirits of our nature can thrive against any odds.


Solitary is the unforgettable life story of a man who served more than four decades in solitary confinement - in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, 23 hours a day, in notorious Angola prison in Louisiana - all for a crime he did not commit. That Albert Woodfox survived was, in itself, a feat of extraordinary endurance against the violence and deprivation he faced daily. That he was able to emerge whole from his odyssey within America's prison and judicial systems is a triumph of the human spirit, and makes his book a clarion call to reform the inhumanity of solitary confinement in the U.S. and around the world.

Arrested often as a teenager in New Orleans, inspired behind bars in his early twenties to join the Black Panther Party because of its social commitment and code of living, Albert was serving a 50-year sentence in Angola for armed robbery when on April 17, 1972, a white guard was killed. Albert and another member of the Panthers were accused of the crime and immediately put in solitary confinement by the warden. Without a shred of actual evidence against them, their trial was a sham of justice that gave them life sentences in solitary. Decades passed before Albert gained a lawyer of consequence; even so, sixteen more years and multiple appeals were needed before he was finally released in February 2016.

Remarkably self-aware that anger or bitterness would have destroyed him in solitary confinement, sustained by the shared solidarity of two fellow Panthers, Albert turned his anger into activism and resistance. The Angola 3, as they became known, resolved never to be broken by the grinding inhumanity and corruption that effectively held them for decades as political prisoners.

Excerpt
Solitary

I was born in the "Negro" wing of Charity Hospital in New Orleans, the day after Mardi Gras, February 19, 1947. My mom, Ruby Edwards, was 17. My father was gone. He left her, she told me, because she was from the wrong side of the tracks. We lived in New Orleans until I was five and my mom fell in love with a man named James B. Mable, a chef in the U.S. Navy. He was the first and only man I ever called Daddy. They got married and had four more children, a girl and three boys.

We moved six or seven times to different naval bases during those years. Daddy's job was to feed the crew of whatever ship he was assigned to. He used to take me onto the ships on weekends when Navy personnel were allowed to bring family. I remember walking to the edge of an aircraft carrier to see the water and he grabbed me by the back of my shirt so I wouldn't be blown away by strong winds.

I was a rebellious child. When I was seven or eight, I challenged my mom to a wrestling match. "I can beat you," I told her. "If I win you have to wear a dress all day," she said. It was the worst punishment I could think of but I agreed. She pinned me in a few seconds. I don't know where she got the dress but I wore it. At least I was keeping my word, she said. "A man ain't nothing without his word," she told me. I heard that my whole childhood.

For a while my mom was my world. Proud, determined, and beautiful, she took care of us. She couldn't read or write but she could add and subtract and was good with money; she could squeeze a penny until it screamed. Growing up in the Jim Crow South she had a lot of practice surviving on very little. When Daddy was on leave we stayed at his parents' small farm where he had grown up in La Grange, North Carolina. There, my grandparents grew watermelons, cabbage, corn, tobacco, and sweet potatoes. Behind the house was a chicken coop and farther back a forest where we picked wild strawberries. My grandmother loved to fish but was afraid of boats. I was the only one she trusted to row her out into the river, which, my mom being from Louisiana, we called a bayou.

My grandmother showed me how to clean and cook the fish we caught. She taught me how to farm. I fed the chickens and worked in the fields. I learned to drive a team of mules at a very early age. When we "cropped tobacca" I drove a slender buggy led by a mule that fit between rows of tobacco. The sides of the buggy were made of cut-up burlap sacks, nailed to posts that stuck up from each corner of the wagon. The women in the field broke off the leaves and laid them down flat in the buggy. When the buggy was full I drove it to the curing barn where women tied and hung the tobacco on sticks that were then placed inside the barn on racks. Once the barn was full the heat was turned on and the tobacco would be cured before being shipped and sold to tobacco factories. When I was nine or ten I'd hitchhike back and forth to a job at a tobacco factory in Winston-Salem, 170 miles each way. Sometimes the drivers would make conversation, other times they wouldn't. My job was to help roll the tobacco barrels to a scale. A lot of kids my age worked there.

When I was 11, everything changed. Daddy was forced by the Navy to retire after 25 years and we moved to La Grange full-time. He went from being a master chief petty officer, the highest noncommissioned rank you can achieve in the Navy, to being a black man living on a farm in North Carolina. Without the responsibility and respect he was given in the Navy, he lost his self-esteem. He started drinking and took his frustration and rage out on my mom. Daddy never hit me or my brothers or sister. He beat my mom. When he hit my mom, she screamed and tried to fight back, but she was a small woman. He overpowered her with his size and strength. We never knew when he was going to explode in anger and bitterness. Nothing warned us in advance how he would react on any given day so we lived in constant confusion and fear. One time he beat my mom so badly his sisters came around and told her they were afraid for her life. If she didn't leave, they said, he might kill her. My mom didn't want to go but some part of her knew if she stayed with Daddy she was in danger. Sooner or later the violence he used against her might be used against her children. She made a secret plan with Daddy's sisters to take us kids and run away. Because of her limited education and experience the only place she felt safe was in New Orleans, where she was born and raised. So, New Orleans was her destination.

Full Excerpt

Solitary © 2019 by Albert Woodfox. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.

Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary confinement for a murder he did not commit; in this memoir he shares his story of perseverance, growth and hope.

Print Article

Voted 2019 Best Debut Author Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

According to statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor, between 80,000 and 100,000 people are held in solitary confinement per year, a condition critics claim is specifically designed to break the human spirit through extreme isolation and restriction. Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary, but he endured, and now shares his powerful story in this insightful memoir.

Born in 1947, Woodfox grew up in a time of openly state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination. When his family moved to a poor and working-class black ward in New Orleans, Woodfox began to see and feel these realities for the first time. He witnessed black men and boys harassed, assaulted and charged by police without cause (see "Black Incarceration and Sentencing" for more on this topic). Yet he would not learn the depth of these social issues for years. As an adolescent and young adult, he shoplifted food as a means of survival, but he quickly degenerated to more serious crimes, causing harm to a community already contending with poverty and police scrutiny/violence.

In and out of juvenile centers and prisons, Woodfox developed a criminal reputation, eventually entering Angola—the Louisiana State Penitentiary—in 1965, and returning in 1969. Angola was once a slave plantation. In 1869, a slave trader's widow leased the land to a former confederate major, who worked leased inmates under slave conditions to farm the land (see "The Legacy of Slavery and Prison Labor" for more on this topic). Hundreds died each year. In 1901, the state of Louisiana bought the land and turned it into a penitentiary, retaining the name "Angola," the country where the plantation's original slaves were born. When Woodfox arrived in the mid-60s, the prison was run by the "freemen"— white security guards who descended from generations of Angola workers. Inmates were regularly subjected to violence and brutality, gassed, beaten, harassed and raped.

After years of breaking laws, serving sentences and enduring police abuse, Woodfox fled to Harlem to escape another bid at Angola for armed robbery. It was here that he was introduced to the Black Panther Party. They unified the city by engaging in community work, from free school breakfast programs to literacy, education and outreach efforts. He marveled at their confidence and lack of fear. Woodfox soon found himself back in prison in New York when the authorities caught up with him, and there he met more Black Panthers, many of whom would later be released, proven innocent of charges against them. Instead of engaging in the often violent, inhumane inmate culture, the imprisoned Black Panthers acted with respect and kindness. To Woodfox, "they acted like they weren't even in prison." The Black Panthers asked fellow inmates what they needed, sharing food and clothes; they asked who could not read and began educating and sharing books with those around them, including Woodfox. This was his turning point. He read, related, analyzed and debated the words of Mao Zedung, Ho Chi Minh, Chou En-lai, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, George Jackson, Frantz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah. In connecting to their words and learning from their teachings, Woodfox transformed: "We knew from experience that by changing, we gained more than we lost. We got more awareness. We got more compassion. We talked about how the entire human race needed to raise its consciousness, not as individual races or groups, but as humans, as a species."

Woodfox was transferred back to Angola for his third bid there, but this time he was armed with new morals, values and principles. He was radically different. Upon arrival, he connected with imprisoned Black Panthers and officially joined the Party. Together, they worked within the prison—through hunger strikes, protests, litigation, defiance and media outreach—to bring humanity back to Angola.

The unrest and solidarity of inmates was viewed as a threat to the prison system. When corrections sergeant Brent Miller was murdered in 1972, officials seized the opportunity to pin the crime on the Black Panthers. Woodfox was sent to solitary confinement, alongside two other Panthers, Herman Wallace and Robert King. These political prisoners became known as the Angola 3. One of the wardens would later describe Woodfox as a "hardcore Black Panther racist" in court.

Woodfox was convicted, despite there being no physical evidence and no reliable eyewitness testimony connecting him to Brent Miller's murder. In fact, the primary testimony used against him was given by a serial rapist who was proven to have been paid off and released by Angola officials. Solitary describes how this injustice happened: delays in gaining a lawyer of consequence; lack of random, unbiased jury selection; misconduct and false accusations from prison officials; failure to properly document, record and store evidence; negligence of proper conduct in the attempt to gain statements; and general prosecutorial misconduct. By the 2000s, countless human rights activists and organizations stood behind the Angola 3, including Critical Resistance, Amnesty International, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Solitary Watch, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 2016, Woodfox was finally released, the result of decades of appeals to the courts. He plead no contest to reduced charges, meaning he did not admit guilt, but accepted he could not prove innocence, due largely to a number of people involved in the original trials being deceased and unavailable for questioning. This was Woodfox's final round of appeals, and he chose freedom over justice. Today, he is still adjusting to life outside of solitary confinement. Despite the decades spent in Angola, he maintains hope.

Relatively few people will ever experience the horrors of solitary confinement, but in this narrative reflection, readers will see themselves. This is what makes Solitary such a weighty and worthwhile read. Running parallel to Woodfox's experience with the judicial system is his trek into social activism. This subplot creates something of a redemption story, a moving testament to our potential for growth, regardless of circumstances and past decisions. It is proof that a strong belief system paired with a like-minded community can catalyze change. Woodfox's unwillingness to break—his strength and determination—is a lesson bestowed to those who are just entering the world of social struggle, as well as a reminder to those who have been fighting these battles for decades. Whether it's prison reform, racism, classism, or other ideologies and causes, the message is the same: Do what can be done, wherever it can be done, to better the world.

Readers curious to learn more about Albert Woodfox may wish to listen to his 2005 interview about activism with Prison Radio or read his recent interview about Solitary with NPR.

Reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

New York Times
This story, which Woodfox has written with Leslie George, is told simply but not tersely. If it sometimes induces claustrophobia, well, it’s meant to. Very often the painful details, and the author’s own humanity in the face of them, start to make your chest feel too small...If the ending of this book does not leave you with tears pooling down in your clavicles, you are a stronger person than I am.

Washington Post
Wrenching, sometimes numbing, sometimes almost physically painful to read. You want to turn away, put the book down: Enough, no more! But you can’t, because after forty-plus years, the very least we owe Woodfox is attention to his story...Solitary should make every reader writhe with shame and ask: What am I going to do to help change this?

Kirkus Reviews
An astonishing true saga of incarceration that would have surely faced rejection if submitted as a novel on the grounds that it could never happen in real life.

Library Journal
A worthy read for anyone interested in the struggle to ensure humanity exists behind bars in America.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this devastating, superb memoir, Woodfox reflects on his decades inside the Louisiana prison system ... The book is a stunning indictment of a judicial system 'not concerned with innocence or justice,' and a crushing account of the inhumanity of solitary confinement. This breathtaking, brutal, and intelligent book will move and inspire readers.

Author Blurb Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning, winner of the National Book Award
Solitary is an astounding story and makes clear the inhumanity of solitary confinement. How Albert Woodfox maintained his compassion and sense of hope throughout his ordeal is both amazing and inspiring.

Author Blurb Jelani Cobb, author of The Substance of Hope
Sage, profound and deeply humane, Albert Woodfox has authored an American testament. Solitary is not simply an indictment of the cruelties, absurdities and hypocrisies of the criminal justice system, it is a call to conscience for all who have allowed these acts to be done in our name.

Author Blurb Barry Scheck, Co-Founder of the Innocence Project
A man who would not be broken. Not by more than 40 years of solitary in Angola, not by maddening injustice in courts, not by beatings, isolation, or loneliness. Albert's courage, wisdom, and kindness will inspire all who fight for social justice and have the good sense to read this book.

Author Blurb Van Jones, President of the Dream Corps and Host of CNN's "The Van Jones Show"
Albert Woodfox's extraordinary life story is both an inspiring triumph of the human spirit and a powerful call for the necessity of prison reform.

Author Blurb Reverend Leah Daughtry, co-author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics
[H]is journey of resilience, perseverance, growth, and triumph is at once a cautionary tale, a challenge to all we think we know about the justice system, and an inspiring testimony to the power of the human spirit.

Author Blurb Mike Farrell, author of Just Call Me Mike and Of Mule and Man
Every white person in America must read this book...As a citizen of the United States, this book embarrasses me deeply. And it makes me furious.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Paula
Immersion into prison
Woodfox has written an amazing book. He describes prison life and his long road to justice simply and without becoming overly emotional. I felt ashamed to be part of the human race for the injustices and abuse that was inflicted upon him. Powerful!

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The Black Panther Party

Black Panther Party founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton In October of 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale of Oakland California founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which later became the Black Panther Party. Although the Party disbanded in 1982 only 16 years after its creation, it remains one of the largest and most controversial black revolutionary organizations in history. Known for encouraging militant self-defense of minority communities against the United States government, the Black Panther Party worked to establish economic, social and political equality through international socialist ideals, mass organizing and community-based programs.

The Black Panther Party had a ten-point platform and program based on members' desires and beliefs. Newton said that they strove "to serve the needs of the oppressed people in our communities and defend them against their oppressors." In the words of the Party, here is an outline of the points:

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black Community.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
  6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
  8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
  9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in a court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.

In practice, the work of the Black Panther Party involved developing a Free Breakfast for Children program, reaffirming black beauty through positive art, words and imagery, and efforts to educate minority groups through literacy programs, informational texts and community discussion. It involved pooling community resources to meet the needs of others, from medical bills to legal fees. As told by Albert Woodfox in his book Solitary, it involved achieving humane prison reform, too, from dialing down unnecessary and invasive strip searches to freeing the falsely accused.

In addition to the black-focused work done by the Black Panther Party, the organization advocated for equity and advancement of all minority groups. In fact, women played an integral role in the Party. They took on leadership roles, organized in their communities and spoke out against sexism within the organization. Other intersectional efforts surfaced in alliances through the Black Panther Party's Rainbow Coalition movement, with groups including the Young Lords, Young Patriots and the Native American Housing Committee. The Young Lords were an international, Marxist, revolutionary human rights group founded by first generation Puerto Rican immigrants. The Young Patriots were impoverished white Southern migrants intent on alleviating racist, classist oppression through antifascist, revolutionary means. The Rainbow Coalition as a whole focused on common goals related to equal opportunity: the end of white supremacy, the end of housing discrimination, the end of police violence and the end of racism.

Many people know the Black Panther Party for their militant actions, including shocking displays of public protest. On May 2, 1967, the Party gained worldwide media attention in a protest against the Mulford Act, legislation developed to restrict the right to openly carry loaded weapons. Around two dozen armed members entered the California state capitol in Sacramento and read an executive mandate in response to the legislation before being disarmed.

In addition to growing public influence and acts of protest, the Black Panther Party's association with other radical movements, such as communist and socialist movements, instilled fear in the United States government. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation's counterintelligence program designed to silence political dissidents—COINTELPRO—launched before the Black Panther Party was founded, the group became a primary focus after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. According to FBI documents, COINTELPRO was created to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalists." Tactics involved efforts to create factionalism, including harassment, raids, infiltration and specific efforts to encourage violence, both within the Black Panther Party and between the Party and the community. Other watched groups included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Revolutionary Action Movement and Congress of Racial Equality.

The Black Panther Party collapsed under the weight of discrediting media portrayals, public fears, governmental actions and internal disagreements. However, their impact on the civil rights movement was fundamental and unequivocal. To learn about one man's experiences within the Black Panther Party and prison system, read Solitary by Albert Woodfox.

Co-founders of the Black Panther Party Bobby Seale (left) and Huey P. Newton (right)

By Jamie Chornoby

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