Albert Woodfox, the last imprisoned member of the ‘Angola Three’, has been released after more than four decades in solitary confinement.

Albert Woodfox © www.angola3.orgAlbert Woodfox © www.angola3.org

What happened?

Albert Woodfox was initially jailed alongside Herman Wallace and Robert King in 1971 following a conviction for armed robbery. In 1973 Wallace and Woodfox were confined to solitary in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, after being convicted of murdering prison guard Brent Miller. King was also convicted of a murder in Angola in 1973, and was held in solitary confinement until his conviction was overturned in 2001 and he was freed.

Woodfox and Wallace always maintained their innocence and in addition to a seemingly unfair trial by the Louisiana courts, the evidence against them was also weak, with no fingerprints belonging to either man found at the crime scene. Woodfox, whose conviction relied on the testimony of another prisoner who received a pardon in return, believes his conviction was politically motivated because he was a member of radical black rights movement, the Black Panther Party.

After four decades of isolation, Albert Woodfox’s release is long overdue and undeniably just. Nothing will truly repair the cruel, inhuman and degrading solitary confinement that the state of Louisiana inflicted upon him. But this belated measure of justice, on Woodfox’s 69th birthday, is something he has been seeking for more than half his life.

Jasmine Heiss, Senior Campaigner at Amnesty USA

43 years in lockdown

Woodfox spent almost all of his 43 years in prison in lockdown, much of it in Angola, in a 6ft by 9ft cell with concrete bunks and a metal toilet and sink. Ordered to be kept on "extended lockdown" every 90 days for decades, Woodfox’s lawyers say he was confined to his cell 23 hours a day.

Prior to this recent settlement, Woodfox’s conviction had been overturned three times. On 8 June 2015, Federal Judge James Brady granted Woodfox unconditional release and barred the state from retrying him. However, Judge Brady’s ruling was overturned on appeal.

Woodfox finally agreed to plead no contest to lesser charges in exchange for freedom but insisted this was not an admission of guilt.

Jasmine Heiss, Senior Campaigner at Amnesty USA said: "After four decades of isolation, Albert Woodfox’s release is long overdue and undeniably just. Nothing will truly repair the cruel, inhuman and degrading solitary confinement that the state of Louisiana inflicted upon him. But this belated measure of justice, on Woodfox’s 69th birthday, is something he has been seeking for more than half his life. While the State of Louisiana did not release Woodfox’s fellow Angola Three prisoner Herman Wallace until he was at death’s door, it has made a just and humane decision in ensuring Woodfox’s freedom."

Solitary confinement

Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment in which an inmate is isolated from any human contact, with the exception of prison staff. Often referred to as ‘The Box’, solitary confinement can ruin a person in a matter of weeks, even days. Sometimes the damage is immediate and irreversible. Side effects can include panic, depression and even a nervous breakdown. Solitary confinement, like the death penalty and torture, is cruel and wrong.

Data revealed by a Bureau of Justice Statistics census in 2005 shows, at that time, 81,000 people were being held in solitary confinement in the US alone.

Robert King, one of the ‘Angola Three’ stands in front of a mural depicting his friend, Albert Woodfox. The mural in New Orleans, Louisiana, was painted by artist Brandan Robert King, one of the ‘Angola Three’ stands in front of a mural depicting his friend, Albert Woodfox. The mural in New Orleans, Louisiana, was painted by artist Brandan "B-Mike" Odums in conjunction with Amnesty International USA © Amnesty International

How did Amnesty respond?

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Over the last five years, our global movement has generated more than 650,000 actions on behalf of the Angola Three.

Between 2015 and 2016 almost 18,000 Australians emailed then-Attorney General of Louisiana, Buddy Caldwell, calling on him to release Albert Woodfox from prison.

Thank you to all who took action for Albert and helped bring attention to his case. You showed the Louisiana authorities that people around the world were outraged by Albert’s ordeal and contributed to his release.

What next?

Woodfox’s release should mark a pivotal new chapter in reforming the use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons in the US and around the world. Louisiana must commit to making urgent reforms to solitary confinement, and chart a course toward doing its part in ending the overall crisis of mass incarceration.