Political activist and award-winning author Albert Woodfox joins Traverse City’s National Writers Series on Thursday, December 3, beginning at 7 p.m. to discuss his debut biography, “Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement.” The book was originally published on March 5, 2019, and is available for preorder at Horizon Books with a 20% NWS discount.
This is a free, virtual Northern Michigan event. Register here. Guest host for the evening is Jerome Vaughn, news director at 101.9 WDET and former NPR Next Generation Radio mentor.
Albert Woodfox has lived more than half his life in solitary confinement. For a total of 44 years and 10 months, he was confined to a single, six-by-nine-foot prison cell—the longest of any inmate in United States history—all for a crime he didn’t commit.
“Solitary confinement has no humanitarian purpose,” Woodfox says. “Its sole purpose is to break the human spirit—to destroy the individual’s sense of worth.”
But, break he did not.
Instead, Woodfox chose to see that cell as a space for progress rather than punishment. In his National Book Award-nominated biography, “Solitary,” Woodfox pulls back the curtain on the American prison system to both highlight the horrors of his own experience, as well as enact essential reform. “I just didn’t feel people in America knew actually what was going on in prison,” Woodfox says. “I thought that if nothing else, I wanted to expose the harsh cruelty of solitary confinement. The prison system in this country has controlled the narrative, and I wanted to add my voice to the color of that, to say ‘This is what prison is really like.’”
In 1971, at the age of 22, Albert Woodfox was first convicted of armed robbery while on parole and sentenced to 50 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—more commonly known as “Angola Prison.” But, before his transfer took effect, Woodfox fled to Harlem in New York City, where he joined the Black Panther Party; the ideals of which determined his transformation—and ultimately, his survival. “The requirements of members of the Black Panther Party gave me a sense of self-worth,” Woodfox says, “a sense of purpose, and a direction.”
For more than four decades, those concepts were Woodfox’s only company. After a prison guard was stabbed to death in 1972, Woodfox and two other Black Panther prisoners—now infamously known as “The Angola Three”—were charged with his murder and condemned to life in solitary confinement. But where a similar sentence might have wrecked other inmates, it only reinforced Woodfox’s will to survive. “The Black Panther self-defense played a major role in my determination to contribute to humanity and society,” he says.
Now in his early-70s, Woodfox has lived freely for nearly five years. But he hasn’t lost sight of his purpose as a Panther, and he’s using that platform as an agent for change. “I’ll be an activist until I’m called home,” he says. “This is a lifestyle. We’ve been successful in raising a common narrative and hopefully, people across America will start to think differently about [solitary confinement] in new society.” Still, our work as a country is far from finished, Woodfox says, as confinement persists in prisons nationwide. “It’s no longer seen as a punishment by a lot of states,” he explains. Instead, he says, contemporary systems see it as more of a housing solution, because “it’s easier to control men if they’re housed in a cell than it is if they live in a dormitory.”
Still, progress is nothing if not patient. “We’re fighting on all fronts,” Woodfox says. “I think the greatest achievement we have reached is a new determined level of consciousness—both in America and hopefully outside of America—about the horrors of the use of solitary confinement.” As for the rest of us, the battle has only just begun. “I love humanity,” Woodfox says. “I think that fighting to build a better human race was, and always will be, a cause to sacrifice everything, if necessary.”