Exclusive: Following his release this year after serving almost 44 years for a murder he didn’t commit, Albert Woodfox talks to Siobhan Fenton about politics, the US prison system and whether racism in America has really changed
Albert Woodfox’s story is perhaps one of the greatest miscarriages of justice which any man living has ever endured. He was released from prison earlier this year after serving close to 44 years in solitary confinement for a murder he didn’t commit.
His case epitomises the endemic and undeniable horror of racism in the US criminal justice system. Alongside two other young African American men, Herman Wallace and Robert King, their story has become infamous around the world as that of the “Angola Three”.
The men were serving prison sentences on other charges in the early Seventies at former slave plantation Angola prison in Louisiana. As active members of the Black Panther movement, they had organised petitions and hunger strikes to protest racial segregation, violence and mistreatment of black prisoners. They say their activism led them to be seen as “trouble makers” by prison staff and sparked a racist campaign to see them charged with the murder of a prison guard they did not commit.
The case brought against them has since been widely discredited, following tarnished eye witness statements, lost DNA evidence and alleged misconduct by the prosecution. Woodfox claims one eye witness in the case who claimed to have seen him commit the murder was later revealed to have been blind – a point which reveals the dark and disturbing farce of the case. Another witness in the case, a fellow inmate serving life for rape, was allegedly promised a pardon, cigarettes and birthday cake in exchange for testifying against them.
The men say they were victims of racial discrimination and corruption. But despite their protests, the case saw them thrown into solitary confinement for decades.
Robert King was eventually released in 2001 following an appeal after he pled guilty to a lesser charge, after serving 29 years in solitary. Herman Wallace was released in 2013 after 42 years in solitary confinement – he died three days later of liver cancer.
Woodfox continued to protest his innocence and fight his case and in 2014, judges upheld unanimously that his conviction had been secured as a result of racial discrimination. He eventually entered a plea on a lesser charge and was finally released in February of this year. For 43 years he lived in a 6ft x 9ft cell largely without human contact or communication, waiting for justice.
We meet on the day of the US election, on the eve of the announcement of presidential results. He is about to give a talk at Anglia Ruskin University, alongside Robert King, about the men’s experiences and continued racism in the US criminal justice system. For a man who has endured such unfathomable injustice, he bears no signs of bitterness but is quietly dignified and intensely focused on ensuring racism is the US is taken seriously so no one else will have to endure his pain. He speaks with tremendous gravitas wrapped in low, old-school American husk.
“I’ve never received an official apology from the government and I really don’t expect one,” he tells me. “No apology is going to give me back 44 years of my life. No apology is going to make up for the pain and suffering we’ve had to endure.”
One might expect him to be overwhelmed by the contrast a busy life in the modern world presents compared to life in solitary or take time to adjust, but since his release and reunion with King, the pair have been giving talks around the world to raise awareness of their experiences and ongoing injustices. When I meet them they have just returned from talks with the UK chapter of Black Lives Matter, with whom they have been discussing conditions this side of the pond. “I’ve been running [around] since I was released from prison. I’ve had a few days here and there but what King and I are trying to do in raising awareness is far more important than any personal time.”
Woodfox tells me he is not convinced racism in the US has quelled at all since the Angola Three’s convictions in 1972. He says: “There has been no progress. None whatsoever. That was one of my surprises when I was released from prison. The conditions that existed 44 years ago are still in America… During the 44 years that I was inside, I was aware of changes through TV, magazines and newspapers, so I was aware of what was going on – the [election of] the first African American president.
“But slowly I began to realise that the blatant racism in America had not changed at all. It wasn’t as obvious, but still as dehumanising and still as destructive as racism can be.”
He cites the presidential election as proof of this. Woodfox says he has begrudgingly backed Hillary Clinton as the “lesser of two evils” but would have loved the opportunity to tick Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren at the ballot box. He is visibly horrified by the notion of Trump as a credible candidate and what that says about the nation: “Today voters are deciding whether to vote for a man who is openly a racist and a bigot – to put him in the most powerful position in the country. I think that speaks volumes as to whether changes exist in America and whether they have been sufficient.”
After say our goodbyes, Woodfox and King address a packed and eager auditorium of Anglia Ruskin students who hang on their every word; flickering between disbelief and incensed outrage as they hear the injustice the men have experienced. Hours later the election results slowly start to trickle in, revealing that against all the polling predictions Trump has clinched the race to the White House and will be the next president of the United States. As the night continues protests break out around the country. In the weeks that follow, accounts of hate crimes and racist attacks in the US grow. It’s difficult to disagree with Woodfox and see how much racism has really changed beyond the superficial or the socially acceptable.