Albert Woodfox was released from Louisiana prisons after 43 years of almost continuous solitary confinement in a six-by-nine-foot cell for a crime he denies committing.
For the duration of that time, Woodfox was held in the cell for 23 hours a day. In the single remaining hour, he was allowed out of the cell to go to the “exercise yard” – a small area of fenced concrete – but was shackled and kept alone there as well.
Last November James Dennis, a judge with the federal fifth circuit appeals court, described the conditions of Woodfox’s confinement. “For the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction,” he said.
His cell “had a solid steel door that enclosed Woodfox entirely as if in a tomb. The only view out of the concrete cell was a tiny slit of window that presented a sliver of sky.” Solitary confinement is widely condemned as a form of torture. It is incredible that Woodfox didn’t go insane.
In 1951, scientists at McGill University conducted an experiment in which they subjected male graduates to solitary confinement in a simulated prison cell, to see how they would cope with prolonged isolation. The study was intended to run for six weeks but was abruptly terminated after only seven days because several students began hallucinating and suffering from severe mental breakdowns.
Albert Woodfox has been held in such conditions of extreme isolation in Louisiana prisons and jails not just for seven days, but for 15,000.
So how did he do it? How did Albert Woodfox remain sane for more than four decades in the bleakest and most inhumane of circumstances, which have been denounced by the United Nations as a form of torture and have broken the will of lesser mortals in a matter of days?
He said that he and two others in his situation made a vow to not let themselves be driven insane and decided on a daily regimen to keep their minds active, and “kept his brain engaged, avidly reading newspapers and magazines for at least two hours each day and watching documentaries and current affairs programmes on the small TV he was allowed in his cell.” But he saw those prisoners who were not literate lose their minds.
What does it say about us that we deliberately try to make people go insane? What possible purpose can it serve other than demonstrating how cruel, barbaric, and vindictive we are as a society?
The now 69-year old Woodfox says that he will use his new freedom to campaign against this inhumane practice, showing that he is better than those who kept him in captivity.