Albert Woodfox, former Black Panther who spent 43 years in solitary, dies

The prison reform advocate and Pulitzer-nominated author spoke to theGrio about his "calm" facade to channel justified anger into improving inmates' lives.

Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther who spent 43 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary — commonly called Angola — has died at the age of 75 from COVID-19 complications.

“With heavy hearts, we write to share that our partner, brother, father, grandfather, comrade and friend, Albert Woodfox, passed away this morning,” Woodfox’s family said in a statement. “Whether you know him as Fox, Shaka, Cinque, or Albert — he knew you as family. Please know that your care, compassion, friendship, love, and support have sustained Albert, and comforted him.”

Woodfox became known internationally for his fight to be released from the prison along with two other Black Panthers. They were known as the Angola Three.

Albert Woodfox
Albert Woodfox smiles as he arrives on stage on Feb. 19, 2016 at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. It was his first public appearance after his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Woodfox, a former Black Panther member, has died at the age of 75 from COVID-19 complications. (AP Photo/Max Becherer, File)

All three men — Albert Woodfox, Robert King and Herman Wallace — were accused of killing prison guard Brent Miller in 1972, but they maintained their innocence, saying they were targeted for their involvement in the Black Panther Party.

The year before the discovery of Miller’s body in a prison dorm, Woodfox helped found a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party. And officials admitted that the decades-long stints in solitary of the Angola Three were to prevent Panther activism from agitating inmates.

In the years that Woodfox struggled to secure his freedom and during his subsequent release, media reports regularly focused on his “calm” demeanor. But in an interview with theGrio he discussed adopting a deportment that wouldn’t detract from his message. Like many Black men, Woodfox could not afford the human response of showing anger in the face of injustice. So he didn’t.

From the back porch of his humble home in New Orleans, Woodfox spoke with theGrio in 2019 about his quietude.

“They’ll make this statement about how calm I am and how I don’t seem too bitter,” he said. “Well, I’m not bitter but I am angry. They took 40 something years of my life away from me and they put me in a cell that was designed to be a death tomb. And so how can I not be angry?”

“I just chose to channel that anger in a positive way,” he continued. “I found out that to hate someone takes a tremendous amount of energy. I don’t forgive them but I don’t hate them. You know, I don’t think they are worthy of that kind of energy from me.”

Woodfox told theGrio he was clear about the intent of his forced decades alone. “Solitary confinement to me is the most brutal, non-physical form of torture that one human being could inflict upon another,” he said.  “It serves no purpose other than to destroy the human being, to destroy dignity, pride, self-respect. Most of all, hope.”

Woodfox entered prison in 1965 to serve time for armed robbery. He was only 22. Before then he’d committed petty crimes, he said.

“The voice of the street was louder than the voice of my mom. And the voice of the Black Panther Party was louder than the voice of the street,” Woodfox said.

Meeting Black Panther Party members behind bars changed his self-perception. “I started being able to draw the connection between racism and economic oppression and social oppression. And I came to the realization that I was in prison not because I was a bad person,” he said. “I was in prison because of economic social policy of this country.”

Woodfox, a New Orleans native with a signature grey afro and warm smile, was freed from Angola in 2016 after a hard-fought legal battle over his murder conviction. Federal courts had tossed out previous convictions related to Miller’s death. And Miller’s widow defended Woodfox in later years, agreeing that he and the other men likely were framed for the murder.

Albert Woodfox and his attorney Carine Williams
Albert Woodfox (right) is shown with his attorney, Carine Williams. (Photo courtesy of Carine Williams)

Although Woodfox wanted to prove his innocence during a trial, he chose another route.  Concerns about his physical health and to facilitate his immediate release, Woodfox pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of manslaughter in the Miller murder case. 

After his release, Woodfox dedicated his life to prisoner advocacy and fighting to end solitary confinement.

“One of the things we vowed to each other that when we were free that we would be a voice for the men, women and children who don’t have a voice,” Woodfox said.  “And we will put a face to those same men, women and children and make society realize that these are human beings.”

In a 2020 interview with theGrio, Woodfox’s lawyer, Carine Williams, described his post-prison advocacy and the life he reclaimed outside Angola. “What happened with his release,” she said, “isn’t so much that he was freed, but that he was allowed to grow.”

Woodfox also wrote and published a book about his imprisonment and involvement in the Black Panther Party called “Solitary,” which earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination. His life story will become a feature length movie and actor Mahershala Ali will both executive produce and star as Woodfox in the film.

After his release, Woodfox devoted his energy to making up for lost time on the outside — playdates with his grandchildren, catching up on reading and teaching another generation to fight racism and injustice in prisons.

“My life — it is what it is,” he told theGrio. “The experiences that I went through helped me. It was my choice to use these experiences to become a better human being, a better man.”

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