Book Review: Solitary by Albert Woodfox | More2Read
 

Solitary by Albert Woodfox

 


The extraordinary saga of a man who, despite spending four decades in solitary confinement for a crime of which he was innocent, inspired fellow prisoners, and now all of us, with his humanity

Solitary is the unforgettable life story of a man who served more than four decades in solitary confinement—in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, 23 hours a day, in notorious Angola prison in Louisiana—all for a crime he did not commit. That Albert Woodfox survived was, in itself, a feat of extraordinary endurance against the violence and deprivation he faced daily. That he was able to emerge whole from his odyssey within America’s prison and judicial systems is a triumph of the human spirit, and makes his book a clarion call to reform the inhumanity of solitary confinement in the U.S. and around the world.

Arrested often as a teenager in New Orleans, inspired behind bars in his early twenties to join the Black Panther Party because of its social commitment and code of living, Albert was serving a 50-year sentence in Angola for armed robbery when on April 17, 1972, a white guard was killed. Albert and another member of the Panthers were accused of the crime and immediately put in solitary confinement by the warden. Without a shred of actual evidence against them, their trial was a sham of justice that gave them life sentences in solitary. Decades passed before Albert gained a lawyer of consequence; even so, sixteen more years and multiple appeals were needed before he was finally released in February 2016.

Remarkably self-aware that anger or bitterness would have destroyed him in solitary confinement, sustained by the shared solidarity of two fellow Panthers, Albert turned his anger into activism and resistance. The Angola 3, as they became known, resolved never to be broken by the grinding inhumanity and corruption that effectively held them for decades as political prisoners. He survived to give us Solitary, a chronicle of rare power and humanity that proves the better spirits of our nature can thrive against any odds.


 


Praise for Solitary:

“In this devastating, superb memoir, Woodfox reflects on his decades inside the Louisiana prison system . . . The book is a stunning indictment of a judicial system ‘not concerned with innocence or justice,’ and a crushing account of the inhumanity of solitary confinement. This breathtaking, brutal, and intelligent book will move and inspire readers.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A man who spent four decades in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit tells his shocking story . . . Woodfox explains how he overcame [brutal conditions] despite relentless despair . . . An important story for these times . . . An astonishing true saga of incarceration that would have surely faced rejection if submitted as a novel on the grounds that it could never happen in real life.”
Kirkus Reviews

Solitary is an astounding story and makes clear the inhumanity of solitary confinement. How Albert Woodfox maintained his compassion and sense of hope throughout his ordeal is both amazing and inspiring.”
—Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning, winner of the National Book Award

“Sage, profound and deeply humane, Albert Woodfox has authored an American testament. Solitary is not simply an indictment of the cruelties, absurdities and hypocrisies of the criminal justice system, it is a call to conscience for all who have allowed these acts to be done in our name.”
—Jelani Cobb, author of The Substance of Hope

“A man who would not be broken. Not by more than 40 years of solitary in Angola, not by maddening injustice in courts, not by beatings, isolation, or loneliness. Albert’s courage, wisdom, and kindness will inspire all who fight for social justice and have the good sense to read this book.”
—Barry Scheck, Co-Founder of the Innocence Project

“Albert Woodfox’s extraordinary life story is both an inspiring triumph of the human spirit and a powerful call for the necessity of prison reform.”
—Van Jones, President of the Dream Corps and Host of CNN’s “The Van Jones Show”

“Albert Woodfox shares his coming-of-age story with crystal clear-eyed perspective, holding nothing back as he unwraps the unvarnished truth of his life. Deftly weaving the undeniable threads of race, class, and systemic inequities that made his story—and so many similar ones—possible, his journey of resilience, perseverance, growth, and triumph is at once a cautionary tale, a challenge to all we think we know about the justice system, and an inspiring testimony to the power of the human spirit.”
—Reverend Leah Daughtry, co-author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics

Solitary is the stunning record of a hero’s journey. In it a giant, Albert Woodfox, carries us boldly and without apology through the powerful, incredibly painful yet astonishingly inspiring story of a life lived virtually in chains. He is, as readers will learn, a ‘Man of Steel.’
Every white person in America must read this book. It should be required reading for every advocate of ‘law and order,’ every prosecutor, every warden, every prison guard and every police officer in America. It should be taught in every law school and every political science class. And any ‘public servant’ currently holding a local, state or federal office who refuses to read it should step down.
As a citizen of the United States, this book embarrasses me deeply. And it makes me furious.”
—Mike Farrell, author of Just Call Me Mike and Of Mule and Man


Review:

“Our resistance gave us an identity. Our identity gave us strength. Our strength gave us an unbreakable will.”
-Albert Woodfox

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
—Frederick Douglass

“[If ] any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ the entire world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one.”
—James Baldwin

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The House of the Dead

“Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your picture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.”
-from Intruder In The Dust by William Faulkner 

He starts by telling of his youth and his mother and her wisdom and fortitude.
A telling of survival in poverty under Jim Crow laws, being called names, despicable kind, the racist kind.
Be prepared for the days of the unstoppable force that is Albert Woodfox presented before you in this narrative, if you did not know him then you surely will now with awe and respect, man of code, principle. and no s**t toleration, a raw and unfiltered narrative of an urban survivalist.

His first jail sentence seems to be for two years for auto theft he had escaped the jail and brought back, he then landed in Angola at 18 he was set at doing two years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, then overtime at aged 24 he was already through five years of being in and out of 4 different prisons, with one final terrible one, Angola, but this time in solitary for many years.

He does no look for sympathy in this narrative this laying down of his struggle but he does draw empathy, he had certain choices in life and due to poverty, racism, and social economic divide took them.

As he joined the Black Panther Party and started a chapter in the prison he became a threat to the status quo, in and out of prison.

Slavery, poverty, bondage, unjust prison system, corruption, horrors, abuses, but also the power of unity, brotherhood, education, reading, courage, will and hope, all brought back to the readers consciousness again, stark and raw truths layered out one of the most important narratives to be released in 2019.

Fighting against injustices, human and civil rights, making wrongs right, including ones of his self, a breaker of laws, metamorphosing into one of no more crimes, reestablished reborn with all the darkness, using his light and fortitude and what his mother instilled courage and leadership, never giving up and moving forward even if his life was in 6’ by 9’ in solitary.

A terrible tragedy within these pages and tale of empowerment and not allowing the prison to shape him, an inspiring struggle, this is a journey a portrait of a young to older man in incarceration and despite it all, compassion remains, courage and a fortified human being with unbreakable will.


Excerpts:

“That’s when I learned that courage doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. Courage means you master that fear and act in spite of being afraid.”

“Everything in those days was segregated between whites and blacks. Black people weren’t allowed to go a lot of places because of Jim Crow laws. At the movies, black people could only sit in the balcony. We were barred from sitting in the seats downstairs. We weren’t allowed to stand in the lobby or at the concession stand. To buy popcorn or any of the other snacks we had to wait by the lobby door until a white usher walked by so we could give him our money and order. The usher would bring back our change and candy or popcorn, or whatever was left over at the concession stand.”

The horrors of the prison in 1965 cannot be exaggerated. Angola looked like a slave plantation, which it once was. The prisoner population was segregated; most prisoners were black. African American prisoners did 99 percent of the fieldwork by hand, usually without gloves or proper footwear. White guards on horseback rode up and down the lines of working prisoners, holding shotguns across their laps and constantly yelling at the men who were working, saying, “Work faster, old thing” or “Nigger.”

“In 1901, the state of Louisiana took over and purchased the land, which became the state penitentiary, but it was always called Angola, after the African country where the plantation’s original slaves were born. It was fitting as far as I was concerned: the legacy of slavery was everywhere. It was in the ground under our feet and in the air we breathed, and wherever we looked.”

Being sent to the dungeon—being “locked up”—was a constant threat. I heard stories about the dungeon, a cellblock not far from the main prison. Prisoners were kept 24 hours a day in a cell shared by other prisoners. Total isolation. Bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We called it “the hole.”

“I thought of the most violent and depraved prisoners I’d encountered at Angola and in New York. I couldn’t bring myself to hate them. Uneducated, they were surrounded by racism and corruption in prison, threatened by, and often the victim of, violence and beatings because of their race, forced to live in filth, worked to death, and barely fed. Treated like animals they became subhuman. They became animals. All the principles I was being taught by the Black Panther Party I now started to understand. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities . . . decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings . . . land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace. I didn’t just get it with my mind, I felt it with my heart, my soul, my body. It was as if a light went on in a room inside me that I hadn’t known existed.”

“Meanwhile, there was also a struggle for human and civil rights sweeping America at that time, and there was a growing number of prisoners and prisoner groups who were doing what we were doing with the Black Panther Party, speaking out and calling for resistance. Outside the prison some black lawmakers were pushing for prison reform. In February of that year, two months before the guard’s murder, U.S. Rep. John Conyers from Michigan addressed a national hearing on penal reform that was held in New Orleans, organized by Louisiana state representative Dorothy Mae Taylor and the Black State Legislators Association. Conyers’appearance made the front page of the newspaper because he called all black prisoners in America “political prisoners,” because, he said, “they came out of an environment that made crime conducive for them to survive.”Two former black prisoners who spoke at the hearing described atrocities at Angola. One, Andrew Joseph, said he witnessed guards firing into a gathering of prisoners who were protesting bad food, shooting prisoners “down like dogs.” Another, Lazarus Smith, said he saw “as high as 60 men” die of wounds for lack of treatment at Angola. He said he once stabbed a prisoner in a fight and a guard “rode him [the wounded man] around the grounds until he died.”

“It took me a while to understand the legal terms and language used in the court and how the court system worked. If I came across a passage I didn’t understand in the law books I read it over and over again. I’d read a single passage 40 or 50 times until I was somehow able to absorb the meaning.”

“After years in prison and solitary confinement, I’d experienced all the emotions the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections wanted from me—anger, bitterness, the thirst to see someone suffer the way I was suffering, the revenge factor, all that. But I also became something they didn’t want or expect—self-educated. I could lose myself in a book. Reading was a bright spot for me. Reading was my salvation. Libraries and universities and schools from all over Louisiana donated books to Angola and for once, the willful ignorance of the prison administration paid off for us, because there were a lot of radical books in the prison library: Books we wouldn’t have been allowed to get through the mail. Books we never could have afforded to buy. Books we had never heard of. Herman, King, and I first gravitated to books and authors that dealt with politics and race—George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, J. A. Rogers’s From ‘Superman’ to Man. We read anything we could find on slavery, communism, socialism, Marxism, anti-imperialism, the African independence movements, and independence movements from around the world. I would check off these books on the library order form and never expect to get them until they came. Leaning against my wall in the cell, sitting on the floor, on my bed, or at my table, I read.”

“I requested biographies and autobiographies of women and men even if I didn’t agree with their politics or principles. Studying them helped me develop my own values and my own code of conduct. King was also a big reader; we read a lot of the same books and discussed them. He also loved fiction and literature and read Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and all J. R. R.Tolkien’s books many times over. We both read everything written by Louis L’Amour. I loved philosophy, geography, economics, biology, and other sciences. I could always find something valuable in whatever I read.”

“Nelson Mandela taught me that if you have a noble cause, you are able to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Malcolm X taught me that it doesn’t matter where you start out; what matters is where you end up. George Jackson taught me that if you’re not willing to die for what you believe in, you don’t believe in anything.”

“Every day is the same. The only thing that changes is whatever change you can construct on your own. The only way you can survive these cells is by adapting to the painfulness. The pressure of the cell changed most men. Some got depressed and went into themselves, isolated themselves, never speaking, never leaving their cell. Others talked constantly, were confused, irrational.”

“Nelson Mandela wrote that the challenge for every prisoner is “how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs.” He wrote about how being kept with his comrades on Robben Island helped him survive. “For together our determination was reinforced,” he wrote. “We supported each other and gained strength from each other.” So it was for me, Herman, and King. We supported each other and gained strength from one another. Whenever I thought I could not take another step for myself, I found the strength to take that step for Herman and King. We had to be strong so we could keep our minds and spirits free being locked up 23 hours a day. We had to be strong so we could show other prisoners that in the fight against oppression, there is no letting up, no backing down. We wanted the other prisoners to see that our struggle for dignity was more important than our own safety and our own freedom and our own lives. We had to be strong so the prison administration could not break us.”

“In my forties, I chose to take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate. Whenever I experienced pain of any origin I always made a promise to myself to never do anything that would cause someone else to suffer the pain I was feeling in 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. 

In my forties, I fully understood all that my mom had sacrificed to take care of her children. I felt all the love she had for us, and the love I had for her. Everything my mother ever said to me came back to me over the years. Lessons she taught me that had been lost in the arrogance of childhood had become the foundation of my own wisdom.”

“In the novel Native Son, Richard Wright wrote, “Men can starve from a lack of self-realization, as much as they can from a lack of bread!” I never forgot those words. By the time I was 40 I’d read and educated myself enough to develop my own values and code of conduct. It started with the 10-Point Program of the Black Panther Party. In the years after the party broke up I expanded upon those values and, I broadened my views on the struggle, and I found solace in the words of other great men and women who seemed to understand me and validate my life. 

“If there is no struggle there is no progress,” Frederick Douglass wrote.“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power cedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Malcolm X wrote, “Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” Malcolm gave me direction. He gave me vision. The civil rights leader Whitney Young said of being black: “Look at me, I’m here. I have dignity. I have pride. I have roots. I insist, I demand that I participate in those decisions that affect my life and the lives of my children. It means that I am somebody.” There wasn’t one saying that carried me for all my years in solitary confinement, there were one thousand, ten thousand. I pored over the books that spoke to me. They comforted me. 

In my forties, I was able to show my mom the man I’d become. I was able to thank her for her wisdom and the lessons of life she taught me and let her know she was my role model and my hero. I thanked her for the sacrifices she made for me and my sister and brothers. I apologized for putting her through so much pain in my youth and told her I appreciated everything she did for me. I always wanted to be a man my mother could be proud of. I was in prison, but I was able to show her that I had become that man. 

By age 40 I had learned that to be human is to grow, to create, to contribute, and that fear stops growth. Fear retards the process of growing. Fear causes confusion and uncertainty. Fear kills one’s sense of self-worth. By eradicating fear on the tier, I learned that men can deal with each other better. They can get along. I wondered if in society, we could build a world in which we do not fear one another.”

“Every morning in CCR I woke up with the same thought: Will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop? Will I curl up into a ball and become a baby, which was an early sign of going insane? Every day I pushed insanity away. Every day I had to find that strength. I had to find within me the will and determination not to break. I got those qualities from my mom. The closest I ever came to breaking in prison was after my mom died, on December 27, 1994. I used to tell myself, “If you can breathe you can get through anything.” When my mom died my breath was snatched from me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t catch my breath. I always thought if I lived long enough, I’d win. But now she was gone and I could never have her in my life again, no matter how long I lived. I wondered if, without my mom, I would ever be able to breathe again.”

“The biggest lesson I learned from Malcolm is that change is possible, that you can transition from what society has made you, as a result of your race and your economic situation, and redefine yourself. Malcolm also taught me how to look beyond my immediate surroundings.”

“On May 13, 2012, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Louisiana was the “prison capital of the world,” incarcerating more of its people, per capita, than any other state. “First among Americans means first in the world,” wrote staff writer Cindy Chang. “Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.” Chang reported that, at the time of the article, 1 in 86 adults in Louisiana was incarcerated, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, 1 in 14 was behind bars.”

“In May 2018, after more than 40 years as a punitive place of torture at Angola prison, Camp J was closed. At its peak, Camp J held 400 prisoners in solitary cells for longer than 23 hours a day.”

 



By Artist Brandan “B-Mike” Odums 


 


 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 09 March 2019