After more than 43 years in solitary confinement, Albert Woodfox is a free man and joins us today for his first broadcast interview. The former Black Panther spent more time in solitary confinement than anyone in the United States, much of it in a six-by-nine cell for 23 hours each day. Albert Woodfox was released Friday after he entered a plea of no contest to charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary of a prison guard more than four decades ago. Prior to Friday’s settlement, his conviction had been overturned three times. Albert Woodfox was serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola when he and fellow prisoner Herman Wallace were accused in 1972 of stabbing prison guard Brent Miller. The two men always maintained their innocence, saying they were targeted because they had organized a chapter of the Black Panther Party to address horrific conditions at the Angola prison, a former cotton plantation. Woodfox, Wallace and and a third man, Robert King, became collectively known as the Angola 3. For decades, Amnesty International and other groups campaigned to free the three men. Woodfox was the last remaining member of the group to be locked up. Today we speak to Woodfox and King, who was freed in 2001 when his conviction for killing a fellow inmate was overturned. Herman Wallace was freed in 2013, just days before he died from cancer.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Democracy Now! exclusive. Joining me in hosting today’s broadcast is Democracy Now!’s criminal justice correspondent, Renée Feltz.
RENÉE FELTZ: Thanks so much, Amy. It’s great to be here. And welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world.
After more than 43 years in solitary confinement, Albert Woodfox is a free man. Woodfox has spent more time in solitary confinement than anyone in the United States. He was released from prison in Louisiana on Friday after four decades. The former Black Panther was kept in a six-by-nine cell for 23 hours each day. Albert Woodfox was released Friday after he entered a – a plea, I’m sorry – a plea of no contest to charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary for a prison guard who was murdered more than four decades ago. Prior to Friday’s settlement, his conviction had been overturned three times. On Friday, Woodfox left Feliciana Parish jail, where he been held pending his trial, and headed to his mother’s gravesite.
ALBERT WOODFOX: I need to go say goodbye to my mother – I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral when I was in Angola – and my sister, as well.
RENÉE FELTZ: Albert Woodfox was serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola when he and fellow prisoner Herman Wallace were accused in 1972 of stabbing prison guard Brent Miller. The two men have always maintained their innocence, saying they were targeted because they had organized a chapter of the Black Panther Party to address horrific conditions in Angola prison, a former cotton plantation.
Woodfox, Wallace and a third man, Robert King, became collectively known as the Angola 3. For decades, Amnesty International and other groups campaigned to free the three men. Woodfox was the last remaining member of the group to be locked up. Robert King was freed in 2001 when his conviction, that he had killed a fellow inmate, was overturned. Herman Wallace was freed in 2013, just days before he died from cancer. But the state of Louisiana refused to release Woodfox until now.
AMY GOODMAN: After Albert Woodfox’s first conviction was overturned, Louisiana successfully tried him a second time in 1998. Then, in 2014, a federal judge ruled he should be set free on the basis of racial discrimination in his retrial. When then-Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell announced plans to try Woodfox yet again, US Middle District Court Judge James Brady ordered his release based on five factors: quote, “Mr. Woodfox’s age and poor health, his limited ability to present a defense at a third trial in light of the unavailability of witnesses, this Court’s lack of confidence in the State to provide a fair third trial, the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over forty years in solitary confinement, and finally the very fact that Mr. Woodfox has already been tried twice and would otherwise face his third trial for a crime that occurred over forty years ago,” unquote. But the US Fifth Circuit then approved Woodfox’s continued detention. Albert Woodfox was released on Friday after he entered a plea of no contest to charges of manslaughter and aggravated burglary.
Well, joining us now in a broadcast exclusive from New Orleans PBS station WLAE is Albert Woodfox himself, giving his first televised interview since his release on Friday. Also joining us there is Robert King, the other surviving member of the Angola 3. And Albert Woodfox’s attorney, Billy Sothern, also joins us from New Orleans.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Albert Woodfox, how does it feel to be free?
ALBERT WOODFOX: I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but it feels great.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, can you talk about what happened on Friday as you left the parish jail in New Orleans? This was after 45 years in prison, 43 years in solitary confinement. You’re the longest-standing prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States.
ALBERT WOODFOX: I guess, you know, for a moment there, everything seemed surreal. And we had to sit around, about an hour and some, waiting on the final documents to be faxed to the West Feliciana detention center. And when that finally happened and, you know, my brother and my attorneys, they walked out with me, and family and friends began to express joy and excitement. And we got in my brother’s car, and we slowly drove. And we answered a few questions, and then we proceeded to go say goodbye to my mother.
AMY GOODMAN: You visited your mother’s grave?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes, I did. Well, we weren’t able to see her because of the time involved. When me and my brother got there, the cemetery was closed. So we went to another cemetery where I could say goodbye to my sister and my brother-in-law, who passed away while, you know, I was still in Angola.
RENÉE FELTZ: Albert, it’s so great to have you join us. Can you explain the significance of going to visit your mother’s gravesite and why that was the first place that you wanted to go?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, when my mom passed away, I had made a request to go to her funeral and say my final goodbye. Warden Burl Cain denied that request. And the same thing happened with my sister when she passed away. My family and friends had made arrangements to allow me to go and say goodbye. Again, Warden Burl Cain denied that. So, for some years now, there has always been this emptiness when it came to my mom and my sister, because I never had a chance to say a final goodbye. And so, that’s why it was important that one of my first acts of being free was to relieve that burden off of my soul.
AMY GOODMAN: Albert, you were in solitary confinement for more than four decades at Angola, this what’s known as a plantation prison, known for the country in Africa where enslaved men and women were brought from and serving at that plantation, enslaved at that plantation. Then it became a prison, where thousands of mainly African-American prisoners are held. Describe your cell, where you lived.
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, I lived in a concrete cell with bars in the front of it. As you enter the cell, there is a metal bunk attached to the wall, and there is also a combination sink and toilet bowl against the back wall.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you keep your sanity? Explain how many hours a day you were kept in this cell. Were you ever allowed out?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, we got one hour a day. You know, when we were first put in CCR in ’72, myself, Herman Wallace and Robert King, we knew that if we had any chance of maintaining our sanity and, you know, not allowing the prison system to break us, that we had to keep our focus on society and not become institutionalized where we were only concerned with the things that were going on in the prison.
AMY GOODMAN: When you say “we,” when you were allowed to go out, did you go out alone or with other people for the hour a day?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. Well, when we first were put in CCR, they used to let everybody out who wanted to shower on the tier, to take the hour together. But as time passed and some of the inmates started to protest some of the things that were going on, then, in order to dilute unity, they started letting us come out one at a time.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to read in your cell?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes. It was one of the tools we used to remain focused and to stay connected to the outside world.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you read?
ALBERT WOODFOX: History books, books on Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin – you know, just any kind of literature that I could basically get a hold of.
AMY GOODMAN: And how often were you allowed to see visitors?
ALBERT WOODFOX: At that time, the visiting system, you were allowed 10 people on your approved visiting list, and each person could visit twice a month. But, you know, because of the long distance and the economic situation, my family was not able to come as much as they would have liked to. So, they tried to come at least once a month.
AMY GOODMAN: You were imprisoned – you were sentenced to five years, when you first went to prison. But then, when we come back from break, I want to talk about what ultimately you were charged with, after you and a guest who we’ll be joined by next, Robert King, as well as the late Herman Wallace formed a chapter of the Black Panther Party in the Angola prison. We’re talking to Albert Woodfox. He is the person longest held in solitary confinement in the United States. He was released on Friday after 45 years in prison, after 43 years in solitary. Stay with us.