The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What one man’s 40 years in solitary says about America’s criminal justice system

Albert Woodfox, center, is greeted by Robert King, right, and Malik Rahim in New Orleans on Feb. 19, 2016, during Woodfox’s first public appearance after his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola earlier that day. (Max Becherer/AP)

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and the author of a forthcoming book on policing.

After his plane was shot down during the Korean War, CIA operative John Downey spent more than 20 years in a Chinese prison, much of it in solitary confinement. When he was finally released and repatriated in 1973, friends urged him to write a book, but Downey demurred: A book about his time in prison, he said, would consist of “500 blank pages.”

This is the dilemma facing anyone trying to write about solitary confinement. How do you communicate to the fortunate, oblivious inhabitants of the outside world what it’s like? How do you describe days, years, decades behind bars, mostly in a small, dank, stinking cell? What is there to say? In prison, things are bad, and then they are worse; then they are unbearable, then merely awful again for a time, then unbearable again, then bad. As Harvard scholar Elaine Scarry has written: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. . . . Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

In “Solitary,” an account of his 40 years in Angola, one of America’s most notorious prisons, Albert Woodfox takes up the challenge Downey declined. The result is a book that is wrenching, sometimes numbing, sometimes almost physically painful to read. You want to turn away, put the book down: Enough, no more! But you can’t, because after 40-plus years, the very least we owe Woodfox is attention to his story, however agonizing we find it.

Woodfox was an ordinary boy, growing up poor and black in segregated New Orleans. The oldest child of a single mother who struggled to feed and clothe her children, Woodfox learned early that survival meant hustling. He and his friends stole bread and milk from stores. For free entertainment, they snuck into concerts and movie theaters, then charged other kids admission through the back door. “We never thought we were committing crimes,” writes Woodfox. “We thought we were outsmarting the world.” But the world was neither sympathetic nor fooled: When police caught up with Woodfox and his friends, as they did repeatedly, they took their money and beat them.

Older but no wiser, as a young man Woodfox drifted from petty crime to petty crime, scamming his occasional employers, stealing cars, getting into fights. He spent time in juvenile hall and city lockups, and he was eventually sent to Angola, a former Louisiana slave plantation turned state prison. At Angola, Woodfox endured the horrors Americans have come to accept as “normal” in prisons: violence from inmates and guards alike, the constant threat of rape, substandard food and unsanitary conditions.

At one point during the revolving-door incarcerations of his early manhood, however, something changed for Woodfox. In 1970, after he was arrested during a trip to New York and sent to the Manhattan House of Detention — known to prisoners as “the tombs” — Woodfox met several members of the Black Panther Party. He was entranced. Unlike most of the prisoners he had encountered, the Panthers had “pride and confidence . . . fearlessness, but there was also kindness. . . . They treated all of us as if we were equal to them, as if we were intelligent.”

The Panthers set up meetings, taught people how to read and tried to organize the men. Many prisoners ignored them, but Woodfox jolted into political awareness with a convert’s zeal. He learned about the “institutionalized racism” of the criminal justice system: “It was purposeful and deliberate . . . and it wasn’t just blacks who were marginalized. It was poor people all over the world. . . . It was as if a light went on in a room inside me that I hadn’t known existed.”

For Woodfox, the teachings of the Panthers were revelatory, giving his life a direction and moral meaning he had never previously found. But to law enforcement officials in the early 1970s, the only thing worse than an African American petty criminal was a radicalized black man, and Woodfox’s determination to spread the principles of Black Pantherism to his fellow prisoners earned him punishment piled upon punishment. Extradited back to Louisiana and back in Angola, he, along with several other Panthers, was soon placed in solitary confinement, where he remained for four decades.

At this point, Woodfox’s story becomes impossibly painful. His hopes for an early release are destroyed when he and several others are accused in the 1972 stabbing death of a young prison guard. Little evidence points to Woodfox, and much of the evidence is exculpatory, but lawyers fail him, over and over, and perfunctory and corrupted hearings and trials each time land him back where he started. Years pass. Woodfox’s siblings grow old without him. His mother dies, and he can’t attend her funeral. Friendships made in the single daily hour allotted for exercise are disrupted by prison transfers and deaths. The day-to-day brutalities continue.

Woodfox gets older and struggles to remain hopeful. He reads; he learns the law; he writes hundreds of letters seeking pro bono legal assistance. Most go unanswered. He gets older still. Outside the prison walls, the Black Panther Party has ceased to exist. Inside his cell, however, Woodfox remains sustained by his commitment to the party’s principles and by his deep belief, notwithstanding the world’s many efforts to convince him otherwise, that his life matters — that neither he nor any other human being should be discarded and forgotten.

“Sometimes I felt cheated,” he writes, “knowing that being born black pretty much determined where I’d wind up. . . . I considered myself to be a political prisoner. Not in the sense that I was incarcerated for a political crime, but because of a political system that had failed me terribly as an individual and citizen of this country.”

Finally, the outside world began to take notice. Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, took up Woodfox’s cause: “Keeping Albert Woodfox in solitary confinement for more than four decades clearly amounts to torture,” Méndez told reporters in 2013. Activists and pro bono lawyers rallied around him, and in 2016, after reluctantly accepting a manslaughter plea bargain as the price of freedom, Woodfox was finally released from prison. He emerged, miraculously, a free man and a generous man, determined to get to know his grandchildren and fight for the rights and dignity of the hundreds of thousands of human beings still behind bars.

His relentless account of four decades of injustice, imprisonment and brutality is difficult to read and difficult to write about — its moral power is so overwhelming. Every summary phrase that comes to mind is a cliche: “a triumph of the human spirit,” “a wholesale indictment of mass incarceration and the American criminal justice system,” “inspiring,” “a call to arms.” But in Woodfox’s case, the cliches all ring true.

When John Downey spoke of the abuses he endured in his two decades in Chinese prisons, Americans nodded sympathetically. We expect our enemies to behave abusively. But here in America, we think, things are different, and better.

They are not. Woodfox considered himself as much a political prisoner as Downey, and he was right to do so; it is America’s broken and inhumane political system that allows us to lock up a higher percentage of our population than any other nation in the world, a majority of them people of color, born poor and on a playing field so unequal they might as well have been shackled from birth.

Woodfox’s story makes uncomfortable reading, which is as it should be. “Solitary” should make every reader writhe with shame and ask: What am I going to do to help change this?

By Albert Woodfox with Leslie George

Grove. 433 pp. $26