Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Visit This Week With Albert Woodfox: "They Call Me The Last Man Standing"

June 19, 2015 Update: Read the follow-up article by the same author about her most recent visit with Albert

(This touching essay detailing a visit this week with Albert Woodfox is reprinted in full from the Why Am I Not Suprised? Blog.)

(PHOTO: Author with Albert Woodfox from a previous visit)

Albert Woodfox "They Call Me The Last Man Standing"

Five years and eleven months ago yesterday, I first laid eyes on Albert Woodfox. He was still in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola then, where he had been locked up in solitary confinement almost continually since April of 1972. I had been a prison abolitionist myself for thirty-eight years at that point, so it was not surprising that we found each other. Despite the 6 X 9 foot cell in which he had been held so long, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people around the world had already found him before me. But unknown to him, when he turned 62 in February, 2009, I threw him a birthday party and invited students on the Louisiana university campus where I teach to come.

As a sociologist and long-time activist, I consider it one of my principle roles to introduce students not only to what is really going on in the world so they can become conscious of social injustice, but also conscious of the option to develop a dedicated willingness to work for positive social change. A few came out and ate some cake and learned a little about Woodfox, but I had only been at the school for three semesters and this was hardly business as usual there as yet. Still, I thought it would only be appropriate to send him a short letter and tell him what we had done.

I didn't fully realize who he was until he answered that first letter, which I didn't really expect, though I had written many prisoners over the years and they always write back. It was then that I did what journalists do and looked the man up on the internet. Reading his whole story, I was stunned. Here was a real live Black Panther Party organizer and hero ninety minutes away from me, living in a cage at the whim of a States' Attorney with what seemed to be a remarkably personal vendetta against him. I was fascinated. I almost immediately decided this was too romantic not to be kismet.

Albert Woodfox, with humility and grace, declined the offer of my heart, recommending that I read The Prisoners' Wife, instead, a painfully honest book about how prison relationships can grind the soul. I read it, but I was insulted and suspected that he was not taking me seriously or that I had simply not met his standards in some way. I did not yet understand the effects of four decades of solitary confinement, but I came to. More importantly, I eventually came to know the extraordinary person that Albert Woodfox is.

In any case, I soon gave up the fantasy of being a political icon's love interest -- but not without some chagrin and more than a little embarrassment, which he kindly never mentions. And we became close friends. We have shared forty visits -- or more -- since then, even when they moved him from Angola to a smaller prison five hours away and cut the visits to a couple of hours each. I drove it in the pouring rain (which I loathe doing). I drove it when they put him behind a glass shackled to the floor (for no reason). I even drove it while we were arguing about gender issues for a while. And yesterday morning, I drove the ninety minutes to the Parish jail where he's been held in more recent months to share with him what could very likely be his last visiting day in prison.

I arrived at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center, a squat white building surrounded by a chain link fence I suspect even I could scale. I entered at 10:11 am and left at 11:14, though visiting hours were over at 11 and all the other visitors were ushered out promptly on time. He told me he had already heard I was coming, which I found odd since I didn't really make my decision on the matter until I woke up in the morning to unexpectedly perfect travel weather and a fierce need to make sure he was doing okay.

The reason I was concerned was that on Monday afternoon, more than 43 years after Albert Woodfox entered solitary confinement for a murder even the victim's widow no longer thinks he committed, a federal judge issued what is sometimes called a "unicorn decision" -- a decision so rare most legal minds think it doesn't really exist. Judge James J. Brady, who stepped down as Chief Justice not all that long ago and may well retire relatively soon, who has been hearing legal arguments related to Woodfox' case for a very long time, ordered that he be released immediately and further ordered that the State be banned from re-trying him. And there it was. After 43 years. The door.

We all knew instantly that he wouldn't simply waltz out of the place. We had been warned many times, most often by Albert himself, that these legal battles can last a lifetime. Indeed, Herman Wallace, another member of the Angola 3, was released in October, 2013, only days before his death from liver cancer. And we knew that, while Albert has become a political icon to so many, he is still just a man -- or as he is wont to say at times, "an ordinary man who has found himself in a set of extraordinary circumstances." In phone calls, he was admitting to members of the Campaign that his feelings were "all over the place" (about as strong a statement as he ever makes, especially about himself). And I knew no one else could make it Wednesday, the only regular visiting day all week. So that meant that, other than lawyers, he was going to be alone with his thoughts.

Sure enough, the State jumped on that decision like a starving lion on a prey in a trap, in hopes that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would put a stay on Albert's release while they spent as much time as they could attempting to get the Appellate Court to reverse Brady's elegant, air tight, carefully worded 27-page decision, however unlikely that seemed to be. The Court agreed to give the State a temporary stay until Friday, June 12th, at 1 pm, when it will hand down its decision on whether or not it will order a longer stay.

So that left Albert sitting in a closed front cell alone for three more days, contemplating how close he is to freedom without having it. Not a good space to be in while trying to keep your wits about you after 43 years of waiting.

I remember him saying one time, "Can you imagine what it was like for me as a kid in my twenties, sitting on the floor of my solitary confinement cell surrounded by law books I could barely read, trying to figure out how to save my own life? For the first twenty years of this sentence, I didn't have a big campaign supporting me. I didn't get twenty or thirty letters a day like I do now. My drawers were hanging off the elastic and I had no reason to believe it would necessarily ever be any other way."

I couldn't leave him there alone. I didn't realize until I arrived at the jail, though, how different I felt about it now. I entered the building looking at the correctional officers like my team had won and theirs had gotten skunked. I didn't have to rub it in. They knew. And there was a new respect in the air.

The "visiting room" at this particular jail is a 7 X 10 foot area with six little backless round metal stools facing six cloudy little windows containing little mesh rectangles through which you have to speak to be heard. Four of the stools already had visitors perched on them when I got in there and the hub-bub in the room killed any ability to sit back far enough to both see and hear the prisoner on the other side of the glass. So I spent the bulk of the visit with my ear as close to the mesh I could get without actually touching it because, once I sat down, it occurred to me in a blinding flash of the obvious that this was going to be a very special visit. This man, who so many around the world have grown to love so much, might very likely be leaving prison in a matter of days and I was in a position to capture this moment for history.

You could tell, after we exchanged greetings and the initial "can-you-believe-this" exaltations, that he realized I was moving into interview mode. He knows I write. And this was too important for us to waste our hour on gossip or talking about the elections or whatever. Yet with no pen or paper, we were going to have to trust that I would remember whatever he said. We've had many hours of conversation, after all, over these six years. So I know how he says things and there wasn't any choice, so we were going to have to make the best of it. All of a sudden, in his characteristically gentle way and with no prompt from me, he gave me a shy smile and said, "You can just fill in the holes with the way I talk..." And I became determined to memorize his every line.

"How did you first learn about the decision?" I asked.

I already knew that George Kendall and Carine Williams, Albert's lawyers, had brought him the news late Monday afternoon, but I wanted to hear the details from his perspective.

"Well," he began. "I figured George and Carine were just coming to discuss the meeting Tuesday morning about the civil case, so I didn't think much about it. We met in the usual little room and they didn't act like anything special had happened. Even their facial expressions didn't tip me off. And then Carine just took out the decision, opened it to the judge's signature on the last page, and dropped it in front of me. I read it and then she turned back to the page just before it and let me read that one, too. And that was it."

He paused, returning to the moment in his mind.

"How did you feel right then?" I had to ask him three times before I got an answer.

"I was shocked!" he responded, the emotion suddenly showing on his face to match the statement. "I always knew it could happen, but I was just shocked that it had."

"Later," he continued, "I noticed these strange lights flashing and when I looked out the window, all I could see all the way down the street was news vans from all over the place -- different channels and AP and all of them were out there -- and equipment set up with bright lights aimed at the jail so they wouldn't miss anything."

Members of the core Campaign to Free the Angola 3 had been waiting for this day for varying lengths of time. Some have been involved for decades, some for only a few years. Some have written Albert for a long period of time without ever actually meeting him. And some travel considerable distances -- even from other countries -- to spend a few hours with him. Some family members, formerly estranged, have reached out in recent years to create relationships with him, but only his brother Michael has visited him at least monthly for virtually the duration.

"Michael was on his way back out into the Gulf to work when he heard," Albert recalled, "but when he said he was just going to turn around and come back, I told him no, don't do that. Go on with your life. We have no way of knowing how this is gonna go. Jackie [a woman who created an art project around Herman Wallace's dream home] is in Paris. She told me if she hears I'm getting out Friday, she's gonna spend the $800 to come back. I said, don't do that. Everybody should just keep doing what they're doing."

Returning to the topic of the decision, he explained a bit more about his own -- and the legal team's -- excitement.

"When you win a case, the judge lets the winning side write the order for him to sign. He still writes the decision, but the winning lawyers get to write what they want the judge to include in the actual order. So George and Carine crafted the order to include that, even if the Fifth Circuit grants the State a stay while the case is appealed, bail will be set. And the judge signed it exactly as it was written."

"You mean he's already ordered bail if you need to go that direction?" I asked, elated.

And as Albert nodded yes, I beat out a fast rhythm on the glass with both hands as if playing a conga, a frenzied type of behavior I would never normally have allowed myself in such a situation, but which I returned to repeatedly during our visit, apparently incapable of containing my emotions.

"So how are you going to use your next 48 hours?" I queried.

He looked puzzled and it dawned on me -- again -- that it hasn't entirely sunk in yet.

"I don't usually eat breakfast," he began. "The grits come in one big lump and I would never eat oatmeal in prison. So I usually just exercise instead."

The court case has been graphic about Albert's health issues, including Hepatitis C, diabetes, and the other health concerns documented to be directly related to his long-term incarceration and his decades in solitary confinement. In fact, Judge Brady specifically mentioned his need for better quality and more comprehensive health care in the decision released Monday. But Albert has continuously tried to mitigate these issues to the extent he can. He has been committed to outliving the State's determination to see him die behind bars. So he turns to forms of exercise he can do in a cell, like push ups and jumping jacks and stretches of various kinds.

"I eat some lunch while I watch the news or the History Channel," he went on. "And I'm reading a book about socialism and the prison-industrial complex right now. The next one I'm planning to read is The Burglary -- about J. Edgar Hoover."

It occurs to me as I listen that he might not be doing any of this routine much longer, but I don't interrupt.

"I got to see George [Kendall] and [Angola 3 member Robert] King talking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! about the decision. They did a good job, I thought. And," he grinned at this point, "I could hear the guys yelling, 'Free Albert Woodfox! Free Albert Woodfox!' until a guard came down and said, 'Can you hear that? They sound like they're gettin' out.' Some of the guys have called down to me, 'When they let you out, can you come shake my hand?' and I tell 'em I'll do my best."

He paused here and flashed another soft smile. "You know, they're calling me The Last Man Standing."

It's not just the prisoners who are boldly showing their respect either. At one point on Tuesday, Albert said, the Warden came down to his cell and tapped politely on the door.

"You dressed?" he called out.

And when Albert said he was, the Warden entered the cell with another man, who he introduced as the new Warden.

"I've been doing this for more than thirty years," he told Albert, "and this man is the one who'll be taking my place."

The new Warden, an African-American, stepped over and offered his hand for Albert to shake. And after he told me the story, we sat for a moment looking at each other, processing the new world order, as it was.

"I've been talking to King about what it's like to get out and all," he changed topics. "You know, all this time I've been thinking about what it would be like to be outside, what I'm going to do when I'm outside, it never occurred to me that I'd be leaving jail."

As if he still couldn't begin to wrap his head around this thought, he repeated it again, sounding incredulous, trying to make a point I would never truly understand. "It never occurred to me that I'd be leaving jail."

His incredulity isn't surprising when you consider the fact that Albert has spent three-fourths of a fairly long life incarcerated. Asked what he wants to do first, he looked for a minute like a man hanging from a cliff.

"Well, of course, first," he finally answered, "I want to visit my mother...and my sister...and my brother-in-law, who was my childhood friend..."

These are the ones who died without his being able to say goodbye.

"And then," he returned to less emotional and more logistical matters, "if I go out on bail, I'll be going to a half-way house in New Orleans..."

There was a pause while a mischievous gleam appeared in his eyes and a sly grin replaced his usual studied composure.

"But if I'm just released, I can go anywhere I want. We might be having our next visit at my place."

Our hour was coming to an end.

"You said this is the closest you've ever been to freedom since this journey first began," I said as I approached my last question. "So... are you satisfied?"

His answer was vintage Albert Woodfox: "I'm satisfied with who I've become as a result of all I've been through. But I'm not satisfied with the way things are in this world. I won't be satisfied until racism disappears in this country and Black people are treated like full citizens in the land of their birth. I won't be satisfied until poverty doesn't put entire generations into prison to live like I've had to live. I won't be satisfied until there's a different distribution of wealth in this country and capitalism is replaced by a system that supports and sustains the common good. Then...I'll be satisfied."

As I walked away from the building, I turned to give it one more look. I may be seeing it again tomorrow. I would love to get to meet my brother at the door. But no matter how it comes down, when it comes down -- and it will -- Albert Woodfox will be the freeest man in the world.

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