(October 8, 2022) The Board of Directors and staff of Neighborhood Defender Service celebrate the life and legacy of our dear friend Albert Woodfox, an activist, author, and a wrongfully convicted survivor who spent 43 years in solitary confinement – thought to be the longest in U.S. history — at one of America’s most brutal prisons. Woodfox, a joyful and committed great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, died on August 4, 2022 at the age of 75. During his scant six years of freedom he relished the time he had with his family yet continued to advocate for criminal justice reform. Through his personal, unflinching accounts of cruelty, inhumanity, and abuse, he maintained everlasting hope that the system, and the people who perpetuate it, could change.
“Albert Woodfox was a friend, a supporter, and an inspiration,” said Rick Jones, Executive Director and CEO of Neighborhood Defender Service. “We are deeply saddened by his passing but honor his spirit by celebrating his resilience, his optimism, and all that he achieved in the face of unimaginable pain and injustice.”
In 1965, Woodfox was incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola. While in prison, he and another man were convicted of the 1972 murder of a corrections officer – a charge that both long denied. It was thought that they were targeted because of their activism in prison for the Black Panther Party. Woodfox spent the next 43 years inside a 6-by-9-foot cell for 23 hours per day, enduring claustrophobia, gassings, beatings and other forms of torture. However, he refused to break and instead developed remarkable mental fortitude. Even in solitary confinement he found ingenious ways to teach others to read, which he cited as one of his greatest accomplishments. He was the he leader of a number of protests to counter inhuman treatment across the prison. Without access to a lawyer, he read civil and criminal case law day and night. Together with another member of the “Angola 3”, they filed a civil lawsuit about long-term confinement, arguably staring what is now a nationwide discussion about solitary confinement. His conviction for the murder was overturned multiple times during his confinement, and he was finally set free in 2016 on his 69th birthday.
While in Angola, Woodfox campaigned against the torturous practice of solitary confinement, and continued to do so since his 2016 release, travelling across the globe to mobilize support against solitary confinement. He also penned a best-selling book, Solitary: My Story of Transformation and Hope, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
In a 2019 interview about his book, Woodfox told NDS: “For me, freedom was a state of mind. My physical movement was confined to a 9×6 cell but my mind was unlimited. They couldn’t tell me what or how to think, how to view the world, particularly America. So, to me, I was free long before my physical freedom came. With the physical freedom, of course there was some adjustment. I still battle with the results of being in solitary confinement. But it never came close to breaking me then and it’s easier to deal with now.”
Woodfox was also a featured speaker at Conversations, an annual forum hosted by NDS, that gathers the leading minds in criminal justice to chart a course forward. Woodfox’s kindness, grace, and commitment to justice will be deeply missed, but he leaves an enduring legacy on the power of hope as a vehicle for change and he continues to be a source of strength and inspiration to many. In his book, he wrote: “I have hope for humankind. It is my hope that a new human being will evolve so that needless pain and suffering, poverty, exploitation, racism, and injustice will be things of the past.”