Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

 Albert Woodfox mixes with the audience at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans on Friday after his release from Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. (Photo: Max Becherer/AP)

Albert Woodfox, the Last of the Angola Three, Is Finally Free

Amy GoodmanDenis Moynihan

Albert Woodfox turned 69 years old Friday. He also was released from prison that day after serving 43 years in solitary confinement, more time than anyone in U.S. history. “Quite a birthday gift,” Woodfox told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, in his first televised interview after gaining his freedom. Woodfox is a living testament to the resilience of the human spirit when subjected to the cruel and unusual punishment of solitary. His case also serves as a stark reminder of the injustice that pervades the American criminal-justice system.

Woodfox was in his early 20s when he was imprisoned for armed robbery in 1971. He was sent to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, a sprawling prison complex with 5,000 prisoners, located in rural Louisiana on the site of a former slave plantation. It gets its name, “Angola,” from the country of origin of many of those slaves.

Conditions in Angola in 1971 were so violent and appalling that Woodfox, along with another prisoner, Herman Wallace, formed one of the first prison chapters of the Black Panther Party. In 1972, Woodfox and Wallace were charged with the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. No physical evidence linked the men to the crime. A bloody fingerprint at the murder scene, which matched neither Wallace’s nor Woodfox’s, was ignored by authorities. Robert King, another prisoner who joined their Black Panther chapter, was charged with a separate crime in the prison. The three were sent to solitary confinement, where they remained for decades, always maintaining they were innocent of the charges.

Albert Woodfox recalled those early days of organizing inside of Angola when we spoke with him just days after his release: “The saddest thing in the world is to see a human spirit crushed. And that’s basically what happened with these young kids that was coming to Angola. And we decided that if we truly believed in what we were trying to do, then it was worth taking whatever measures necessary to try to stop this.”

Even back then, the Angola 3, as they became known, were well-aware of the potential impacts of solitary confinement. Woodfox recalled during our interview, “When we were first put in CCR [closed cell restriction] in ‘72, myself, Herman Wallace and Robert King, we knew that if we had any chance of maintaining our sanity and not allowing the prison system to break us, that we had to keep our focus on society and not become institutionalized.” When I asked Woodfox what he read in prison, he told me, “History books, books on Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin.”

A movement grew, globally, to free the Angola 3, with Amnesty International and other organizations calling for their release. Documentaries were made about the case. In one, the widow of Brent Miller joined the call, saying in 2010, “These men, I mean, if they did not do this—and I believe that they didn’t—they have been living a nightmare for 36 years.”

Two major impediments to their freedom were prison warden Burl Cain and Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell. Cain was the key decision-maker in keeping the men in solitary. In a 2008 deposition in Woodfox’s case, Cain admitted, “I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism.” And while Woodfox’s case was overturned on three separate occasions, with a federal judge ordering his release, Attorney General Caldwell insisted on repeatedly retrying the case. Cain resigned in December, facing state ethics violations and a criminal probe for business dealings during his reign as the longest-serving warden in Angola’s history. Caldwell lost re-election to fellow Republican Jeff Landry, who allowed Woodfox to leave prison on the condition that he plead “no contest” to manslaughter.

Woodfox squinted into the camera lens as he spoke on “Democracy Now!.” The years of confinement in a 6 by 9 foot cell had damaged his vision. He is proud of his activism. “We’ve put this solitary-confinement issue before American people, before the people of the world, and it just started building,” he said. “It got to the point where it wasn’t just about the Angola 3, but it was about solitary confinement.”

Robert King was released in 2001, his conviction overturned after serving 29 years in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace was freed in 2013, only after a federal judge threatened to jail Cain if he refused to release him. Wallace died one day later of liver cancer. On Monday, we asked Albert Woodfox about his future plans: “I’ve been locked up so long in a prison within a prison. So, for me, it’s just about learning how to live as a free person,” he told us. “I’m just trying to learn how to be free.”

© 2016 Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,400 public television and radio stations worldwide.

Denis Moynihan

Denis Moynihan

Denis Moynihan has worked with Democracy Now! since 2000. He is a bestselling author and a syndicated columnist with King Features. He lives in Colorado, where he founded community radio station KFFR 88.3 FM in the town of Winter Park.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Biden's Student Debt Relief to Cost a Fraction of US Giveaways to the Megarich and Pentagon

"In contrast to President Trump and Republicans who gave giant corporations $2 trillion in tax breaks, President Biden delivered transformative middle-class relief," said two senators.

Jessica Corbett ·

'Climate Change Is the Asteroid,' Say Critics of NASA Earth Defense Mission

"The actual clear and present danger to humanity is of course Earth breakdown from burning fossil fuels," said one NASA climate scientist.

Brett Wilkins ·

After Nearly a Decade in Exile, Snowden Granted Russian Citizenship

While the whistleblower said "a little stability" would benefit his family, one digital rights advocate noted that "if the Biden administration dropped the charges against Snowden, Putin wouldn't be able to use him for a PR stunt."

Jessica Corbett ·

Peace Group Urges US and China to Halt 'Blatantly Provocative' Military Maneuvers

The co-chairs of the Committee for a SANE U.S.-China Policy called on American and Chinese leaders to "immediately take unilateral and bilateral steps to reduce the risk of an accidental or unintended clash."

Brett Wilkins ·

In 'Unprecedented Democratic Exercise,' Cubans Approve Inclusive Family Code

"This is a milestone in the advancement of democracy," said global grassroots coalition Progressive International. "Nowhere in the world has a family law been submitted for public consultation and subject to a referendum."

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo