Albert Woodfox has spent more time in solitary confinement than any man alive in the U.S. today — 43 years. He and Robert King are the surviving members of a group known as the “Angola Three.”
Together with the late Herman Wallace, they spent more than 100 years in solitary confinement for the 1972 death of a prison guard, Brent Miller, at the maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. No forensic evidence tied the Angola Three to Miller’s killing, and they always maintained their innocence.
In fact, Woodfox’s conviction of the crime has been overturned — twice. Moreover, advocacy groups like Amnesty International say they were targets of mistreatment, because of their work with the Black Panthers protesting prison conditions.
Wallace died in 2013, just days after a judge granted him a new trial and ordered him released. He had spent most of his life in solitary confinement. King was released in 2001, after a court reversed his conviction, and he has dedicated his life since then to bringing attention to conditions at Angola, as well as fighting for the release of his two friends.
Woodfox was freed on Feb. 19, on his 69th birthday, after pleading no contest to lesser charges.
“Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case now and obtain my release with this no-contest plea to lesser charges,” Woodfox said that day, in a statement released by lawyers. “I hope the events of today will bring closure to many.”
He and King spoke recently with NPR’s Michel Martin about their friendship, solitary confinement and life after decades in prison.
“There’s a different rhythm to living in society as to living in prison,” Woodfox says, “and I’m trying to adjust. Hopefully, I will get there.”
For him, there was never a moment’s thought to giving up his fight to prove his innocence and gain his freedom.
“There were times when I was frustrated and angry,” he says. “I’ve been through panic attacks, claustrophobia attacks, but I never gave up and lost hope.”
Woodfox says it was something special that kept him going.
“The qualities as a human being that I inherited from my mother — such as strength, determination,” he says. “And I think having Robert King and Herman Wallace as only my comrades, but best friends, made it possible for me to endure a great deal.”
Kings says that he found similar strength in his friendships.
“I was motivated also by Herman and Albert and other people who I came in to contact with, despite the fact that we were in solitary confinement,” he says.
“They haven’t ruled solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment, but they did say that the time that someone is held in solitary confinement — such as in my case, which I only was there for 29 years — a federal judge ruled that it constituted a cruel and unusual punishment.”
King reasons that his involvement in setting up a Black Panther movement in prison might have been related to his punishment.
“Prior to my being sent to Angola, we managed to try to effect some change in New Orleans prison where I was housed at. I was labeled at that time as a troublemaker,” he says.
Woodfox, for his part, never expected he’d be placed in solitary so long. “I thought maybe two, three years, but it wound up being 43 or 44 years.”
Still, he says he never gave up hope of release.
“That’s the one thing I didn’t give up. When this first started out, we knew that, if we were going to survive, we had to look for strength from the outside, from society. So instead of turning inward, becoming institutionalized, we decided that we would turn outward to society.”
He adds: “I would not allow prison staff to define who I was and what I believed in.”
It was the friendship between the Angola Three, forged during these times, that kept King’s held attention, even after his release in 2001. After he gained his freedom, King continued to advocate on behalf of his two friends who remained imprisoned.
“It was collective effort, it wasn’t just on my part,” King says. “I was gracefully given support — people who supported the concept of struggling against conditions that were barbarous and illegal convictions. And it developed from empathizers and sympathizers, so it was easy.”
Since his own release in February, Woodfox has not only reunited with King, but he’s joined in his friend’s advocacy against the practice of solitary confinement, too. He says he’s especially motivated by the hard work King has done over the past 15 years.
“He has always been first my comrade and my friend and now my brother,” Woodfox says. “The entire time — [from] when Robert left prison, to the day I walked out — he has never broken faith. I am not sure how many men in this world can measure to that. He has set a high standard. To do anything less than what he did would be a great dishonor to him, and that’s not gonna happen.”
Woodfox doesn’t have specific plans for what’s next, but he has pledged one thing.
“I am sure that I will continue to devote my life to defending those that can’t defend themselves and protect those who need protecting.”