Supporter Says Woodfox Is 'Very Cautious' When It Comes To Judicial System
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Albert Woodfox, the Louisiana prisoner who has spent 43 years in solitary confinement, will not be set free today. A three-judge panel ruled this afternoon that Woodfox will remain behind bars while it considers whether he can be retried for the 1972 murder of a prison guard. His conviction has twice been thrown out. Earlier today, we spoke to Angela Allen-Bell, an advocate for Woodfox and a professor at the Southern University Law Center. She visited Albert Woodfox yesterday and said he was prepared for the judge's decision either way.
ANGELA ALLEN-BELL: He has been through litigating this case, now, consistently since 1972. And so he's developed an ability to sort of understand that, you know, he has control over only one set of things, which is the truth, and nothing more. And so he does not allow himself to become very optimistic. He's very cautious when it comes to the judicial system because his experience has taught him that that is best.
CORNISH: After these last 40-plus years in solitary confinement, how is his physical health? I mean, what evidence can you see of the effects of his isolation?
ALLEN-BELL: Well, one of the things that I can often notice is, in the letters that he writes, his handwriting differs when he is under the duress of this confinement. And so a lot of times, when you read the writing, it almost looks like a child learning to write, like a toddler's writing. And when I see that, I know that he's succumbing to those conditions. The other thing is, he has panic attacks regularly. He also has diabetes. He has high blood pressure. And, you know, he's 68, and he has all of the issues that goes along with living in the body of a 68-year-old. But many of those things are enhanced because of these extreme conditions that he's living under.
CORNISH: We know that his initial imprisonment was at Angola, and he's now at a separate detention center. But the conditions, it sounds like, have been the same. He's been kept away from the general population. He's been in solitary confinement. How does he describe that - the size of the cell, what he's allowed to do or not do?
ALLEN-BELL: In that cell, he has a small bunk, and there's a very thin mattress that would be akin to what you would send to preschool with your kid. He has a toilet, and he has a small desk area. And it measures about six-by-nine. For the larger part of the 43 years, he actually had bars on the outside of his cell so that he could actually hear the television or hear the guards as they move about and even hear other inmates, sometimes screaming in agony. But he had the pleasure of hearing other people up until about two months ago, when he was moved to West Feliciana. Now, he has a solid metal door on the outside of his cell, and he's sealed behind the metal door, and that seems to be taking a toll on him because he's having a lot more panic attacks and issues with anxiety as of these last few months.
CORNISH: Now, Albert Woodfox - his original crime was armed robbery. His solitary confinement came after now questionable convictions for the death of the prison guard, Brent Miller. But at the time, his advocates said that he also was being punished, in a way, for being an organizer within the prison of the first chapter of the Black Panthers. The group was organizing against inhumane conditions at the prison. Angela Allen-Bell, has Albert Woodfox ever expressed to you any regret or concern about his activity during that time?
ALLEN-BELL: Absolutely not, and it's odd that you ask that question because that was some of the conversation we had on yesterday, when he was telling me of some of the things that he would like to do when he's free. And one of the things that he says that he would love to spend time doing is mentoring young boys who grew up without a father, like himself. And I said to him, well, Albert, I said, do you think maybe you should not try to help other folks? You know, try to be a little selfish? I mean, actually, you trying to be a public servant is what got you in this. And he said, absolutely not, I'll never do that. He said, that's what I was called to do.
CORNISH: What are next steps?
ALLEN-BELL: Well, his steps have always been to trust the judicial system, but what I expect also will happen is the public will become more involved in this, and this is going to turn into a bigger movement. This is not going to quietly go away. The people are now invested in this case because of what has been done to Mr. Woodfox.
CORNISH: Angela Allen-Bell. She's a professor at the Southern University Law Center. She spoke to us about Albert Woodfox. Thank you so much for talking with us.
ALLEN-BELL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.