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."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And we've all heard the phrase out of sight, out of mind. Albert Woodfox has spent more time out of sight, locked away in solitary confinement than any man alive in the U.S. today - 43 years. Advocates have tried to keep him on our minds by giving a name to the plight of Mr. Woodfox, along with friend Robert King and a third inmate, Herman Wallace. The three of them became known around the world as the Angola Three since they were kept in solitary confinement at the Louisiana state prison known Angola for decades. Mr. Wallace and Mr. Woodfox were accused in the death of a young prison guard at Angola, but no forensic evidence tied them to the crime. And they've always maintained their innocence. Advocacy groups like Amnesty International say the Angola Three were targeted because of their work with the Black Panthers protesting prison conditions. Mr. Wallace died in 2013, just days after a judge ordered him released from solitary confinement. Mr. King was released in 2001 after a court reversed his conviction. He's dedicated his life to fighting to bring attention to prison abuses, as well as for the freedom for his friends. Mr. Woodfox was freed just last month after pleading no contest to lesser charges. I spoke with Albert Woodfox and Robert King from New Orleans. And I want to warn you that there is a word used in the conversation that some may find offensive. And I started by asking Mr. Woodfox what kept him going all those years.
ALBERT WOODFOX: I would imagine qualities as a human being that I inherited from my mother such as strength, determination. And I think having Robert King and Herman Wallace as not only my comrades but best friends made it possible for me to endure a great deal.
MARTIN: Mr. King, what about you? You were released in 2001 after you had been in solitary for nearly 30 years. Can you talk a little bit about your experience? How did you keep going?
ROBERT KING: Well, I was motivated also by Herman and Albert and, you know, other people who I came in contact with despite the fact that we were, you know, in, quote, you know, "solitary confinement." And now, they haven't ruled that solitary per se is cruel and unusual punishment, but it did say that the time that one 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. It was sort of barbarous...
MARTIN: I couldn't help but notice when you said I was only in solitary for 29 years. I still - I mean, that - that is more than many people could handle. Do you remember when you first were put in solitary, did anybody tell you why? Do you remember what you thought?
KING: Well, no, I think I thought this was because, you know, prior to my being sent to Angola, we managed to try to affect some changes in the New Orleans private prison where I was housed at. I was labeled at that time as a troublemaker.
MARTIN: Oh, is that right? Did they say that to you, you're a troublemaker, that's why?
KING: I was told this by a warden.
MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Woodfox? What did they say to you about why you were going?
WOODFOX: Well, they line everybody up on the walkway, and we proceeded forward to what was called the clothing rooms. As soon as I got in there, you know, I was cursed and called a [expletive] and accused of being involved with a Brent Miller's murder. I denied it.
MARTIN: Did you think it was going to go on this long? Did you ever think that you would be in that - in that situation for as long as you were?
WOODFOX: No. You know, I thought maybe two, three years. But it wound up being 40 - 43 or 44 years.
MARTIN: Did you ever give up hope?
WOODFOX: Oh, no. It's the one thing I didn't give up. You know, 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 and become institutionalized, we decided that we would turn outward to society.
MARTIN: And what do you mean by that, by trying to stay up on the news? What do you mean by turning outward instead of inward?
WOODFOX: Well, in prison, you can become institutionalized. And your sole purpose is to cultivate and maintain a prison culture that usually involved immoral, illegal and brutal conditions, usually inflicted upon prisoners by prisoners and by security staff.
MARTIN: And you determined that you would not participate in that?
WOODFOX: That I would not become institutionalized, that I would not allow prison staff to define who I was and what I believed in.
MARTIN: In total, the Angola Three spent more than 100 years in solitary. And Albert, at the time that you left a month ago, there were still more than 100 other inmates at Angola who were held in long-term segregation. And I'm just wondering, Albert, if you hope that they will be released, or do you - is anything changing about the attitudes about solitary confinement at Angola?
WOODFOX: Well, yes, naturally I'm concerned with the guys that are still in the solitary confinement. And so what kept me strong at times, whether I knew that I had a voice out there in the society. And the entire time when Robert left prison to the day I walked out, he has never broken the faith. I'm not sure how many men in this world can measure to that. He has set a high standard. To doing anything less than what he did I think would be a grave dishonor to him, and that's not going to happen.
MARTIN: Mr. Woodfox, what are you going to do with the rest of your day now that it's up to you?
WOODFOX: Well, I'm not sure what I'm going to do, but I am sure that I will continue to devote my life to defending those who can't defend themselves and protect those who need protecting.
MARTIN: Well, thank, Mr. Woodfox. I appreciate it. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
WOODFOX: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Albert Woodfox and Robert King are the surviving members of the Angola Three. Along with the late Herman Wallace, they spent more than 100 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola. And they spoke with us from our member station WWNO in New Orleans. Mr. Woodfox, Mr. King, I thank you both so much for speaking with us today.
WOODFOX: Thank you for having us.
KING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.