40+ Years in Solitary: 'Ask Me in 20 Years' How Freedom Feels

Albert Woodfox of 'Angola 3' was in isolation more than any other inmate in US history
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 10, 2017 2:24 PM CST
'Angola 3' Inmate on Being Free: 'Ask Me in 20 Years'
Albert Woodfox pumps his fist as he arrives on the stage during his first public appearance at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center with Parnell Herbert, right, in New Orleans, on Feb. 19, 2016, after his release.   (AP Photo/Max Becherer)

Albert Woodfox, the last of the famous "Angola Three," was released from prison last February after pleading no contest to manslaughter in the 1972 killing of prison guard Brent Miller. In a piece for the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv offers some insight into the "reserved" and "humble" 69-year-old now trying to adapt to the outside world since his release, after more than 40 years behind bars, most of it spent in solitary confinement. "I get apprehensive when somebody asks me ... 'What does it feel like to be free?'" he says. His typical reply: "Ask me in 20 years." Aviv dives into the details leading up to his imprisonment, including a rough childhood growing up in New Orleans, as well as his involvement with the Black Panthers in NYC and then in Louisiana's Angola Prison, where he was sent in the mid-'60s after being convicted for armed robbery. It was after Miller's murder and Woodfox's conviction for it when he became intimately acquainted with Closed Cell Restricted, or CCR—the unit where the 6-by-9-foot cells he'd call home for the next 40-plus years were located.

Despite being described as a "model prisoner," Woodfox remained in solitary. He didn't see outside light for more than five years in CCR; he was permitted to walk outside of his cell for an hour a day. (A small outdoor exercise area was added to CCR in 1978.) "Woodfox often woke up gasping," Aviv writes. "He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death." When Woodfox was transferred to a different prison in 2008, he was once more placed in solitary—making his 2016 release a huge adjustment. Once out, he found a usual day of "moving from the kitchen to the bathroom to the living room" took "more steps than his entire exercise regimen in prison," Aviv notes. Since then Woodfox has found his "street legs," and he's now an advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement. "It's the same old America," he notes. Yet on nights when he can't sleep, Woodfox resorts to an old pacing routine he used in solitary to calm himself. "The only thing I can do is walk it off. … And I move on," he says. (Woodfox's extraordinary tale of a life spent in isolation here.)

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