“Our resistance gave us an identity. Our identity gave us strength. Our strength gave us an unbreakable will.” ― Albert Woodfox
Solitary is Albert Woodfox’s heartbreaking memoir of the four decades he spent in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. After reading Woodfox’s heroic and sometimes excruciating account of how he was framed for murder and of the suffering and abuse he endured in prison, I am pondering how he survived his ordeal.
Albert Woodfox served the longest time in solitary confinement of any prisoner in the United States. OVER FORTY YEARS. Known as one of the Angola 3, along with Robert King and Herman Wallace, Woodfox was held in isolation at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola), known as “the bloodiest jail in America” or “the Alcatraz of the South.”
His book chronicles, in detail, the inhumane conditions inside Angola: the needless, senseless, brutal beatings by guards; the physical pain from unbearable heat in the summer and brutal cold in the winter in a six-by-nine foot cell; the screams and cries from other men in solitary confinement; the constant dismissal of medical needs of prisoners; the horrific minutia of everyday life inside a room that is smaller than some closets; and more. His book demonstrates how racism is indeed institutionalized in Angola and the state of Louisiana.
While in prison, Albert joins the Black Panthers and fully resonates with their disciplines and philosophy. He teaches himself to read and devours law books. He becomes a new man. In his words,
“In my forties, I chose to take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate. Whenever I experienced the pain of any origin I always made a promise to myself never to do anything that would cause someone else to suffer the pain I was feeling [at] that moment. I still had moments of bitterness and anger. But by then I had the wisdom to know that bitterness and anger are destructive. I was dedicated to building things, not tearing them down.”
Woodfox then begins advocating for abused prisoners and becomes a leader at Angola, garnering the utmost respect from his fellow inmates. The Angola 3 then join forces to fight for the improvement of prison conditions and their freedom. Many organizations and individuals learn about their plight and help them fight for their freedom from the outside. The rest of the story exemplifies courage and heartbreak. I won’t ruin the ending for you. You will have to read the book.
No person, whether guilty of a crime or not, should spend more than a few days (if that) in solitary confinement, much less forty-four years! The Angola 3 were not the only prisoners sentenced to life in prison (or worse) for petty crimes. There are thousands of prisoners in U.S. prisons today that were wrongly convicted or given sentences that do not fit their crimes. Most are black and Hispanic.
The prison industrial complex in the United States is cruel, inhumane, racist, and needs a full overhaul. Private prisons are a business, and black individuals are targeted. These prisons have NO incentive to rehabilitate prisoners because they would lose money if they did. As this book thoroughly demonstrates, the system is corrupt, from prison guards to wardens, to police, to prosecutors, to judges. Solitary is a must-read and the beginning of educating yourself if you are not aware of what is occurring in U.S. prisons. As one of the most heartbreaking and simultaneously hopeful books I have ever read, Solitary left me in tears.
I highly recommend Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope by Albert Woodfox to anyone interested in the prison industry’s injustice and abuse, racism, and prisoner’s rights. This reading should be required for every criminal law student. Out of the sixty-one book reviews I have completed, this one was the hardest I’ve had to write thus far. Although shocking and sad, read it if you care about human rights.
A bit about the author, Albert Woodfox:
Albert Woodfox is the longest-standing solitary confinement former prisoner in the U.S. and was held in isolation in a six-by-nine-foot cell with only one hour of “yard-time” per day almost continuously for close to forty-four years.
At seventy-three, Woodfox is a speaker and activist who fights to expose the inherent racism in American prisons and works tirelessly for the improvement of prison conditions. He reiterates, “Their [the prison system’s] main objective was to break my spirit. They did not break me.”
Albert lives in his hometown, in New Orleans.