As the billboards and Cajun fishing shacks swooshed by along the road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, the swampy delta landscape looked familiar: 12 years ago, I traveled this road to the prison at Angola in Louisiana with the Danish vagabond, Jacob Holdt. We had toured the shantytowns just beyond the prison walls where families of prisoners settled to be nearer their shackled kin. But on this day, I would venturing inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the first time, to meet with Albert Woodfox, a man who has been kept like an animal in solitary confinement in one of America’s worst prisons for the past 30 years.
I had learned of the Angola Three–of which Woodfox is one, along with Robert King Wilkerson and Herman Wallace — through a remarkable young American attorney named Scott Fleming. The story Fleming told me a year ago made my blood run cold in my veins (see sidebar). To my mind, Albert Woodfox and his friend Herman Wallace, who were framed for the murder of a white prison guard, are political prisoners, every bit the victims of an oppressive government that feels threatened by their intelligence and activism as any of the men and women in Amnesty International’s campaigns. But for some reason, the fact they wallow in a prison in America–a reputed democracy and bastion of freedom and civility–their story has not been told.
In the early 1970s , when the Angola Three dared to stand up for basic human rights and dignity inside the prison, Angola had been declared “the bloodiest prison in America.” It was racially segregated, and inmate guards were permitted to carry loaded weapons. Inmate-on-inmate rape and murder were nearly daily occurrences. Some say reformers have improved conditions in some respects, but violence and corruption still plague the place.
I for one, wanted to hear the story from the Angola Three themselves, and see the prison for myself. So I headed back to the swamplands of southern Louisiana to do just that.
Down on “The Farm”
There is something unnervingly perfect about the prison grounds–at least, the parts the public is permitted to see. The core complex of outbuildings, concrete cellblocks, and massive dormitories, is surrounded by 18,000 acres of lush cropland and perfectly manicured lawns. It looked like something out of a David Lynch movie. So beautiful and ideal, it was vaguely sinister. Even the miles of coils of razor wire gleamed as if it were hand-polished daily. Norman Rockwell himself couldn’t have done better. Outside of the constant clanging of keys, a visitor to this place could almost forget they are in a prison, and not in some Doris Day movie. Unfortunately, all that is window dressing covering some ugly truths.
Once inside the prison, I was searched by guards and sniffed for drugs or weapons by dogs, and permitted only my passport and a few dollars to carry inside. The guards noted my British accent and began regaling me with their opinions on the Royal Family. They had learned all they knew of the Windsors through the National Enquirer, and argued with good humor against Prince Charles, who they said was cold and hadn’t loved Princess Diana sufficiently. I defended Charles, half-heartedly and to no avail. Given our environment, the conversation was ridiculous and banal. Just in time, dozens of other visitors and I were whisked off in enormous blue busses to the visiting area, where I finally met Albert.
The moment he sat down, I knew: this man is a political animal. In the five hours we spent together, the depth and breadth of his knowledge about the world gobsmacked me, He talked about AIDS in Africa, the Palestinians, corporate globalisation. He consistently showed an amazing antenna for stories of people who have been marginalized through war or injustice. His capacity for empathy was breathtaking.
I suddenly felt phony for even being there, offering to help when he had been waiting three decades for someone to notice his predicament, suffering in solitude but with dignity. What did I have to offer, how could I possibly relate to a man who has been locked up for 30 years in a tiny cell? For a long time, it was all I could do just to listen. Listening has never been my strong suit.
Three Decades in Solitary Confinement
Albert described his cell for me: less than three metres square, it has a steel bed platform bolted to one wall with a thin mattress atop it. A small table is bolted to the opposite wall, and the third wall is occupied by a combination toilet and sink. He is not allowed to put anything on the walls, so he lines the perimeter of his wall with books along the floor. And he has two steel boxes under the bed in which he keeps all of his earthly belongings. He spends 23 hours a day there. Three days a week he is given an hour in the “yard,” not much more than a small cage with a dirt floor, where he can exercise alone. The other four days a week, he can use his hour for a shower or to walk along the cramped cellblock.
I cannot imagine the heat. The day I visited it was 90 degrees, and humid. The CCR cellblock has one fan for every five cells, and no air conditioning. But Albert did not complain.
Instead, Albert talked about his mother, who had raised Albert and his siblings alone, keeping food on the table, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads–he called his childhood home “an oasis in a pocket of poverty” — by working as a prostitute. Just before she died, his mother asked him, “Albert, when those white folks gonna let you out?” He talked about his sister, who has been his biggest supporter, who lies dying from cancer in New Orleans, unable to visit him anymore. Albert hopes to be permitted to attend her funeral, a hope probably misplaced.
For a man with so much reason to be angry or hopeless, Albert is remarkably peaceful and calm, focused on his belief that someday justice will be done. If there is a Zen word for “waitfulness,” Albert is the embodiment of it. He said when Robert “King” Wilkerson, a fellow Panther and Angola 3 inmate, was released in 2001 after 28 years in solitary by proving he had been falsely accused, Woodfox said he and Herman Wallace “felt that a part of us was finally free, too.”
I asked him how he manages it, how he keeps from going crazy. “You do go a little crazy sometimes,” he said, “especially when you know you’re innocent. I have bouts of depression and hopelessness, of course. You live with the weight of being convicted for something you didn’t do. It’s a constant itch that you can never scratch.”
He spoke of the 45-day hunger strike he and Wallace and Wilkerson had led in the late 1970s. Their demands seemed simple enough: they wanted their cell doors equipped with food slots so that their meals were not dragged across the filthy floor and shoved under the bars, spilling food all over the floor and attracting infestations of rats and cockroaches in the cellblock. But the prison administration ignored their pleas, and hoped to wait out their protest. But eventually the prison officials relented, and today all the cell doors have food slots at waist level.
What bravery to be fighting the system at that time of absolute corruption. It reminded me of a metaphor kept on coming into my head as I looked across the table at Albert and imagined this strength of spirit: “Even in wartime they will build cathedrals.” The human spirit in some people seems never to be squashed.
I asked Albert what he would do when he was released. His answer surprised me; he said he’d want to be alone. But, I thought, hadn’t he been desperately alone all these years? In fact, the solitary cell he lives in is on a cellblock with dozens more just like it. He can overhear conversations shouted between his fellow prisoners on the tier, and until very recently the constant noise of a television blaring from 6am to midnight on weekdays, 24 hours straight on weekends. He craves quiet, and the quiet conversation of his loved ones, far away from the shouts and cacophonous vulgarities of prison.
He says it isn’t human companionship he craves, it’s intimacy. He says his confinement has robbed him of that. And while he may get out to experience that again, you can’t get 30 years back. What they’ve denied you is memory. They’ve denied you your future by stealing your past.
Albert says that the first luxury item he will buy when he emerges into freedom is a pair of swim trunks. He said he hasn’t had a swim in over 30 years. And after a good swim and a vacation in the wilderness, he would return to political activism. He says he would get back to grassroots organizing for justice in his community.
I know the question people will ask when they hear I’ve taken up the cause of the Angola Three: Why me, why now, why 12,000 around the world to a remote prison to take up this case? And I am reminded of a quote I read on the wall of an Indian bank years ago. It was Gandhi who said, “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.”
Albert Woodfox is not weak, by any means. But he, like his compatriots Herman Wallace and Robert Wilkerson, is worth my efforts and the efforts of all who believe that you must fight injustice where you find it.
Click here to read Roddick’s The Case of the Angola Three.
Anita Roddick is the founder of the Body Shop. Her political writings can be read on her website anitaroddick.com. Her latest book is Take It Personally: How to Make Conscious Choices to Change the World.
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