Solitary could not break Albert Woodfox, but it breaks too many
In February 2016, Albert Woodfox was released from prison. He had spent more than four decades in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison and nearly all that time in solitary confinement. In the years that he was in prison, Woodfox started a chapter of the Black Panther Party, taught fellow incarcerated people to read, sued for better conditions for himself and others, saw his case become a cause celebre and lost his mother and his sister.
Now Woodfox has written the story of those decades, his memoir titled “Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. My Story of Transformation and Hope.” It describes, in painstaking detail, the punishment and degradation that prison authorities sought to inflict on Woodfox and his friends Herman Wallace and Robert King and their daily struggle to hold on to their humanity, morality, and sanity.
Woodfox’s story is an indictment of many aspects of our legal system—how institutional racism and poverty made his arrival in prison and that of so many others almost preordained; how prosecutors withheld evidence, and evaded accountability for it; and most of all, how the Department of Corrections’ main objective, as Woodfox puts it, was “to break my spirit.” In hundreds of pages, Woodfox explains how this worked, the near-absolute power invested in prison authorities allowing them to starve, brutalize, and torture people. Chief among their powers, Woodfox shows, is the ability to deprive people of space, light, movement, and human contact through the punishment of solitary confinement.
In Vox last week, Stephanie Wykstra asks the question that Woodfox’s story demands: Are we ready to end solitary confinement in this country? And she highlights what Woodfox’s memoir makes clear but is occasionally lost in conversations—that the fight to end this and other forms of torture is intimately linked to the fight to end the U.S. experiment in mass caging. [Stephanie Wykstra / Vox]
Wykstra takes a comprehensive look at the landscape of segregation and isolation, tracing its early history, how the practice fell out of favor, and then its resurgence with the proliferation of supermax prisons in the 1980s. Wykstra looks at the incalculable toll extreme isolation takes on the bodies and minds of those subject to it—at least a quarter of all suicides in prisons and jails happen in solitary. And she highlights that, as numerous studies confirm, there is nothing to be gained from it in institutional safety. [Stephanie Wykstra / Vox]
This is a point that is also highlighted in a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report, calling for an end to solitary confinement in Florida prisons. The report looks at the cases of three people placed in isolation, including one who died after nearly four years in solitary. SPLC’s report breaks down the various categories of solitary confinement in Florida prisons, a useful reminder of how the practice goes by many names. [Southern Poverty Law Center]
The fight against solitary has taken many twists and turns, as Wykstra notes. The chances of the Supreme Court ending solitary fell away when Justice Anthony Kennedy left it and while the First Step Act included modest protections first implemented under the Obama administration, we can expect little more at the federal level.
At the same time, efforts at the state level are more ambitious than ever. In Colorado, administrative measures ended solitary confinement beyond 15 days. In both the New York and New Jersey legislatures there are bills with substantial support that would end solitary confinement for anyone beyond 15 days. [Stephanie Wykstra / Vox]
Throughout his book, Woodfox highlights the power of struggle, his own daily struggle from deep inside a 6-by-9 foot cell, and the collective struggle of people around the world who came together to support the Angola 3. Throughout the book, Woodfox is unsparing in his depiction of how the state tried to break him, Wallace, and King and also unstinting in his gratitude to those who fought for them. He writes at the very end:
“To those of you who are just entering the world of social struggle, welcome. To those of you who have spent years struggling for human rights and social justice: Don’t give up. Look at me and see how the strength and determination of the human spirit defy all evil. For 44 years I defied the state of Louisiana and the Department of Corrections. Their main objective was to break my spirit. They did not break me. I have witnessed the horrors of man’s cruelty to man. I did not lose my humanity. I bear the scars of beatings, loneliness, isolation, and persecution. I am also marked by every kindness.”