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The Torture Called Solitary

Few people can survive, unbroken, over four decades of solitary confinement. Albert Woodfox, one of the Angola 3, is such a person. They tried to break him, they tried really, really hard, every minute of every day. Because that’s what this form of wickedness called solitary confinement is about – destroying people callously, cruelly, carelessly, just because it can. “For 44 years I defied the state of Louisiana and the Department of Corrections,” Woodfox writes in his book, “Solitary.” “Their main objective was to break my spirit. They did not break me.”

This book is about a confrontation with evil. It is about being in the hands of wickedness itself and still, somehow, not succumbing, not submitting to utter powerlessness. Woodfox is a Black Panther, so are the others in the Angola 3, Robert King and Herman Wallace (now deceased). As such they were targets of the prison authorities, who framed them for the murder of a white guard, Brent Miller. They fought the charges in court, gained retrials, suffered horrendous prosecutorial misconduct and constant, depraved retaliation from prison authorities while they were in jail. In a closet-sized cell, twenty-three hours a day, stifling hot in summer, freezing in winter, infested with rodents and vermin, Woodfox held onto his sanity. “Our resistance gave us an identity. Our identity gave us strength. Our strength gave us an unbreakable will. My determination not to be broken was stronger than any other part of me, stronger than anything they did to me.”

When he first came to Angola before he was a Black Panther, Woodfox survived the constant threat of violence from other prisoners by being known as someone who was ready to fight and wouldn’t quit. “I knew my survival depended on my ability to respond violently, if needed. But by some grace, maybe the love of my mother, I hadn’t totally lost my humanity. I was always poised to be aggressive, but I knew it wasn’t who I was.” Later he developed other modes of resistance and other relations with inmates. “I turned my cell into a university. I wrote to them, a hall of debate, a law school. By taking a stand and not backing down, I told them. I believed in humanity, I said. I loved myself.” He, King and Wallace helped their fellow inmates by treating them as human beings deserving of respect and dignity. Woodfox writes that his greatest achievement in Angola was teaching another prisoner to read. The Angola 3 made a special issue of prison rape, protecting victims and announcing to potential rapists that they would have to fight Woodfox, King and Wallace.

Even after the U.S. government destroyed the Black Panther Party, Woodfox abided by its beliefs. He never forgot the humanity of the Black Panthers he met while in prison in New York City, in the Tombs. He read voraciously – Franz Fannon, George Jackson, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Karl Marx and more. He concluded that capitalism could not be “fixed” but had to be abolished. He quotes the Zapatistas: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

“By the early eighties, Herman, King and I knew we were forgotten. The Black Panther Party no longer existed,” Woodfox writes. Then began long decades of lonely struggle. The warden would not release them from solitary. But, buried alive, they had each other, their beliefs, their work on behalf of other prisoners and the will not to break. Finally, in the 2000s, their situation drew attention. King, eventually released, agitated for Herman and Woodfox. They got a legal team, a support committee and media coverage. When Herman developed liver cancer, James Ridgeway and Katie Rose Quandt published an article in “In These Times,” about “one medical horror story after another,” in prison medical care. A prisoner with extreme pain in his side in 2010 “was told he had gas. Over the next five years, Ridgeway and Quandt wrote, the prisoner ‘developed numbness in his feet, legs and fingertips, lost his appetite and dropped nearly 100 pounds. When he finally received a CT scan in 2015, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in his kidneys and lungs.” Woodfox reports that Angola “routinely hired doctors with suspended licenses.” One medic was “diagnosed with amphetamine, cocaine and cannabis dependence, in addition to adjustment disorder and personality disorder.”

“Solitary” describes life in hell. Woodfox had several mechanisms for keeping hell at a distance. “If I’d allowed myself to feel an emotional connection to my reality, in that moment I would have gone insane.” But he kept fighting for his freedom and finally won it. The state, the prison bureaucracy robbed him of his rights, but they could never touch his dignity, integrity and self-respect.

Woodfox’s story deserves the widest possible audience. It is heroic. It bears witness against a great evil in the United States – mass incarceration and the widespread torture known as solitary confinement.

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Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Further Adventures of Feckless Frank. She can be reached at her website.

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