February 20, 2016
Exclusive: In his first interview as a free man, the last of the Angola Three talks about how he followed the news, including the ‘racism’ of Donald Trump, to keep himself sane.
In 1951, scientists at McGill University conducted an experiment in which they subjected male graduates to solitary confinement in a simulated prison cell, to see how they would cope with prolonged isolation. The study was intended to run for six weeks but was abruptly terminated after only seven days because several students began hallucinating and suffering from severe mental breakdowns.
Albert Woodfox has been held in such conditions of extreme isolation in Louisiana prisons and jails not just for seven days, but for 15,000. On Friday, after 43 years and 10 months of almost continuous captivity totally alone in a 6ft by 9ft cell, America’s longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner finally walked free.
So how did he do it? How did Albert Woodfox remain sane for more than four decades in the bleakest and most inhumane of circumstances, which have been denounced by the United Nations as a form of torture and have broken the will of lesser mortals in a matter of days?
In his first interview since being released from West Feliciana parish detention center in Louisiana, Woodfox told the Guardian that in 1972, when he was put into “closed cell restriction”, or CCR, he made a conscious decision that he would survive. He and his comrades from the so-called Angola Three, Herman Wallace and Robert King, made a vow to be strong.
“We made a conscious decision that we would never become institutionalized,” he said. “As the years went by, we made efforts to improve and motivate ourselves.”
The key, he said, was to stay connected to what was happening in the outside world.
“We made sure we always remained concerned about what was going on in society – that way we knew that we would never give up. I promised myself that I would not let them break me, not let them drive me insane.”
Donald Trump has exposed the systemic racism in America. He has catered to the worst elements in people
So he kept his brain engaged, avidly reading newspapers and magazines for at least two hours each day and watching documentaries and current affairs programmes on the small TV he was allowed in his cell. In recent months that meant following the rise and rise of Donald Trump – a helpful subject for Woodfox as it easily riled him, driving out other less healthy thoughts.
“Donald Trump has exposed the systemic racism in America,” Woodfox said. “He has catered to the worst elements in people, encouraging us to be selfish and see things only through our own eyes.”
The newly released prisoner is aware that when it came to surviving life in a solitary cell, he was one of the lucky ones. Over 43 years he saw many others who were not so resilient.
Many solitary confinement prisoners were unable to read and write, and so had less intellectual muscle to keep them going. The results were not pretty.
“Some of the guys found the pressure so great that they just laid down in a foetal position and stopped communicating with anybody. I’ve seen other guys who just want to talk and make noise, guys who want to scream. Breaking up manifests itself in any number of ways in individuals.”
Woodfox spent almost all of the 43 years in lockdown, much of it in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, in a 6ft by 9ft cell with concrete bunks and a metal toilet and sink. The cell had iron bars at the front which at least allowed him to hear other prisoners.
His most recent lockup in West Feliciana parish jail, where he was awaiting a third trial for the 1972 murder of a prison officer of which he has always professed his innocence, didn’t even have that facility. It had a solid steel door that enclosed Woodfox entirely as if in a tomb. The only view out of the concrete cell was a tiny slit of window that presented a sliver of sky.
For more than four decades he was held in these cells alone for 23 hours a day. The remaining hour was spent in the “exercise yard” – a rather attractive way of describing a concrete box lined with barbed wire fencing which he could walk around shackled and entirely on his own.
Despite his vow to survive, the years took their toll. He went through bouts of claustrophobia and panic attacks.
For one three-year period, Woodfox suffered such intense claustrophobia that every time he lay down he felt he was being smothered. So he took to leaning his mattress against the wall, wrapping himself in a blanket and sleeping sitting up.
I used to talk to myself to convince myself I was strong enough to survive, just to hold onto my sanity
“The panic attacks started with sweating. You sweat and you can’t stop. You become soaking wet – you are asleep in your bunk and everything is soaking wet. Then when the claustrophobia starts it feels like the atmosphere is pressing down on you. That was hard. I used to talk to myself to convince myself I was strong enough to survive, just to hold on to my sanity until the feeling went away.”
There were times when he came close to the edge. Losing his great friend and fellow political traveller Herman Wallace was very difficult. Wallace was released from a Louisiana prison in 2013, but not until he had reached the end stage of terminal liver cancer. He died two days after being set free, having endured 41 years in solitary confinement just like his buddy Albert Woodfox.
The nearest Woodfox came to losing his mind was when his mother died and he wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.
“That was the closest I came to cracking,” he said. “All my strength I inherited from my mom. I was thankful she lived long enough for me to tell her I loved her and that she was my real hero.”
Psychologists have known about the serious adverse effects of prolonged isolation for at least 60 years, from studies including that aborted 1951 McGill experiment. More recent research on longtime solitary prisoners has recorded the severe side-effects suffered by many, including hallucinations and perception disorders, panic attacks, loss of memory and paranoia amounting to a form of delirium that can often lead to suicide attempts.
Such medical evidence led the UN to declare lockdown a potential form of torture and to demand that all countries ban it except in very exceptional circumstances.
Yet despite the clear scientific warnings, the practice continues to be widespread across the US. The most authoritative recent survey found that in 2014 up to 100,000 prisoners were put in “disciplinary segregation” or some other form of solitary.
Barack Obama has taken a personal interest in the problem and has ordered attorney general Loretta Lynch to conduct a review of solitary confinement across US prisons. Last month, he used his executive powers to ban isolation for juveniles in federal prisons.
Woodfox was convicted to a life sentence for the killing of a prison officer Brent Miller in 1972, having already been imprisoned for armed robbery. He insists he and Herman Wallace were framed for the murder because they were members of the Black Panther movement and were actively campaigning against the racial segregation that still existed in Angola prison in the 1970s.
Woodfox also made himself unpopular with white prison guards by speaking out against the brutal conditions to which black prisoners were subjected when they were sent out to the sugar cane and cotton fields to work as virtual slaves.
“Our political activities marked us and that’s why they locked us up in solitary confinement, where I remained until yesterday,” he said.
His release was secured through a plea deal in which the state of Louisiana agreed to drop the threat of a third trial for the Brent Miller killing – two previous ones were struck down by the courts on grounds of racial discrimination and ineffective legal representation – in return for Woodfox pleading “no contest”. Woodfox stressed that the terms of the agreement mean he holds on to his innocence.
It’s an evil. Solitary confinement is the most torturous experience a human being can be put through in prison
“I am innocent. The fact that I was convicted the first and second times had more to do with racism in the American judicial system than with innocence or guilt.”
He says he hopes to use his newfound freedom to seek proper medical treatment for a raft of health problems, and to reacquaint himself with his family.
“Hopefully I can become a part of my family, and remain socially active,” he said.
Woodfox says he wants to be a “voice for those who have no voice, be a shield for those who can’t protect themselves”. Above all, that means using whatever strength he has left to press for an end to solitary confinement in America.
“It’s an evil. Solitary confinement is the most torturous experience a human being can be put through in prison. It’s punishment without ending.
“We have got to stop this, and having been a victim of it for so long myself, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Source: The Guardian