Albert Woodfox, who spent 42 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola Prison) for a crime he didn’t commit before being freed in 2016, died earlier this month of complications from Covid. He was 75.
Known as one of the “Angola Three,” Woodfox was arrested often as a teenager in New Orleans and later, in New York, where he joined the Black Panthers. In 1972, while serving a 50-year sentence for armed robbery in Angola, he and another prisoner, Herman Wallace, also a member of the Black Panthers, were accused of killing a white guard, Brent Miller, and placed in solitary confinement by the warden. Despite a total lack of evidence against them, they were tried and convicted in January 1974. The two men spent more than 40 years in solitary.
(The third member of the Angola Three, Robert Hillary King, was arrested for a separate prison guard murder in 1973 and spent 29 years in solitary confinement. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and he was released in 2001 on a plea deal.)
Of his time in solitary, Woodfox wrote in his memoir, Solitary, “I used that space to self-educate myself, I used that space to build strong moral character, I used that space to develop principles and a code of conduct, I used that space for everything other than what my captors intended it to be.”
Over the years, the shocking miscarriage of justice that defined the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of the Angola Three caught the attention of civil and criminal rights groups, activists, members of Congress, and prominent defense attorneys. Brent Miller’s widow, Teenie Miller, became a surprise supporter and lent her name and voice to the large and concerted effort to free them.
They were released in stages: King in 2001, Wallace in 2013 (three days before he died), and Woodfox in 2016.
Woodfox was released in exchange for pleading no contest to a manslaughter charge in the killing of Miller. He almost didn’t take the plea. He had promised himself he would never admit to a murder he didn’t commit.
“If I made a deal I’d have freedom. But I’d never get justice,” he wrote in Solitary, But he was 69 years old, and there was no guarantee that he’d be found innocent in a retrial. There was family, friends, and a life he left over 40 years ago that he wanted to rediscover. He made the “deal.” But, he wrote, “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about breaking my word to take that plea.”