Sunday read: The man who spent 44 years in solitary confinement

woodfox
Image from Answer Coalition.

Last February, Albert Woodfox finally walked out of a Louisiana jail. He had been in prison since 1971, most of it spent in the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

Almost 44 years of his imprisonment was spent in solitary confinement.

Imagine living the vast majority of your life in a dimly lit, six-by-nine-foot cube. Imagine living the vast majority of your life in silence, with only snatched conversations, occasional books and irregular visitations to break the monotony. Imagine being despised by the prison guards and wardens as much for your beliefs — Woodfox was motivated by the self-improvement philosophy of the Black Panthers — as your crimes.

And imagine that you may have been placed in solitary based on a crime you may not have committed. Punishment, certainly. But justice?

Much has been written about Woodfox in the last year, but few pieces have been as powerful as Rachel Aviv’s recent take in The New Yorker. It’s my Sunday read.

Woodfox’s story is staggering. Solitary confinement is brutal punishment; as a Guardian story observed, a 1951 experiment was intended to keep people in solitary confinement for six weeks, but was cut short after seven days because the subjects were breaking down. To survive almost 44 years is almost superhuman — and probably unnecessary, unless the goal is torture.

Woodfox has been traveling the country and talking about his experiences, which are detailed in Aviv’s story. Her piece has little about his post-prison life, but one of the most quietly powerful passages in the story describes Woodfox buying a house. Aviv accompanies him to the real estate office with his daughter, Brenda, to sign papers.

The process required two witnesses, and the agent asked me to be the first one. Although Brenda was sitting beside me, the agent asked another white woman who was working behind the desk to be the second. Woodfox signed the papers, and then we did, too.

Woodfox said he was willing to overlook the agent ignoring his daughter in favor of a white stranger. But the incident says something about how the world has and hasn’t changed.

You can read Aviv’s story here.

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