By Gabrielle Blair
In December 2015, I took part in Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights.” This annual program transforms the lives of people in desperate situations by receiving letters and poems from people they have never met. Casting light on their plight has even led to the end of the practice of torture and the release of prisoners across the world.
I read the bios of the list provided by Amnesty and chose to write a poem for Albert Woodfox, who was then serving his 44th year of incarceration in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for a murder he did not commit. It was Woodfox’s 40th year of solitary confinement, the longest period ever known in the U.S. Three times he expected release; three times it was overturned. I called my poem In Solitary. A month later, on his 69th birthday, he was released.
Ever the optimist, he wrote in his Pulitzer-Prize-nominated memoir, Solitary: “I have hope for humankind. It is my hope that a new human being will evolve so that needless pain and suffering, poverty, exploitation, racism, and injustice will be things of the past.”
For twenty-three hours a day, Woodfox was confined to a 9x12x6 foot cell. He read over 1,000 books and worked relentlessly to have solitary confinement abolished. The Guardian reported, “He organized games played up and down the tier or banging on pipes – that way they held math tests and general knowledge quizzes about Black History. He taught several young prisoners how to read. ‘Our cells were meant to be death chambers, but we turned them into schools, into debate halls. We used the time to develop the tools we needed to survive, to be part of society and humanity rather than becoming bitter and angry and consumed by a thirst for revenge.’”
On August 4th, 2022, Woodfox, having been free for six years, died of Covid complications—no doubt exacerbated by the physical suffering he’d endured in solitary confinement, which nonetheless never broke his spirit. He explained that he had “managed to endure decades of solitary, despite frequent terrifying bouts of claustrophobia, through sheer force of willpower.”
How did he use his freedom? According to The Guardian, he devoted it to “educating the public in the U.S. and beyond about the atrocities of the US criminal justice system. He traveled widely domestically and around the world to address audiences of school children and judges,” remaining incurably optimistic to the end.
Once a criminal incarcerated for armed robbery, Albert Woodfox, this extraordinarily courageous person with a mission in life, transformed himself from a nobody into a somebody. He not only brought hope, joy and meaning into the miserable hell of prison, but through his efforts to abolish solitary, some states have changed the law.