Albert Woodfox’s lonely journey through the US criminal justice system came to an end Friday, as the person once dubbed “the most dangerous man in America” drove away from the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, at Angola.
To be sure, questions still linger about Mr. Woodfox’s role in the 1973 murder of a prison guard.
What is not in doubt is his confinement in a small solitary cell for the bulk of his stay. Critics have called his unusual – and arguably cruel – punishment disproportionate to any crime he may have committed.
Woodfox's release comes amid mounting efforts to curb the use of a punishment considered “torture” by the United Nations, currently levied against up to 100,000 US prisoners every day.
Last month, President Obama described the overuse of solitary confinement as “an affront to our common humanity” in a Washington Post op-ed.
Woodfox’s release provides a stark peek inside a system that routinely hides the conditions inside cell blocks.
“The concealed nature of the practice … illustrates the scale of the challenge that remains,” writes Davis Smith in the Guardian.
The prison at Angola – named for the country of origin for slaves who once worked the land there – is one of America’s most notorious, the bulwark of a Louisiana state prison system that confines more people per capita than any other state.
Woodfox is the last of the so-called “Angola Three” to be released. The three members of the Black Pantherswere imprisoned on charges related to the 1973 killing of prison guard Brent Miller. On Friday, Woodfox pleaded no contest to lesser charges in order to win his release. He has maintained that he was targeted for solitary due to his political activities.
"Although I was looking forward to proving my innocence at a new trial, concerns about my health and my age have caused me to resolve this case," he told reporters at the gate of the prison.
Solitary confinement, begun in the 1800s as opportunity for spiritual self-reflection, has become a go-to punishment for unruly or violent inmates.
While some prison experts say the practice protects the safety of prisoners and prison staff, its use has become ubiquitous. Some states are building entire super-max prisons solely for solitary confinement.
“The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance,” President Obama wrote, adding that the practice should be “used only as a measure of last resort.”
Critics note that solitary confinement can cause psychological trauma that creates more problems when prisoners are released. Overuse of solitary has been shown to increase suicide and recidivism rates.
“You’re not creating better citizens [upon release],” Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told the Monitor last year.
Recent years have seen a major shift in policy and thought on how to deal with unruly prisoners.
Since 2009, states from New York to South Carolina and from Colorado to Mississippi have instituted major changes, including reducing the maximum time prisoners can spend in solitary, and even closing solitary super max prisons. Fears that such moves would increase violence have proven largely unfounded.
In fact, when Colorado cut its use of solitary, prison violence fell dramatically.
Momentum has only increased.
The American Correctional Association held hearings in January to address new standards for what it termed “restrictive” housing, where prisoners are kept for 22 hours or more in their cells.
Also last month, President Obama announced new policies for the federal prison system, which is separate from the state prison systems. Under the new rules, inmates must be housed in the “least restrictive” settings, and transfers to solitary must be specifically justified in writing. Most significantly, solitary can no longer be used on juvenile prisoners.
The Bureau of Prisons also now publishes monthly reports on who has been put in solitary and why.
Last year, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy addressed the “human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation,” calling for more “public inquiry” in the practice and research into more humane alternatives.
But resistance remains, also highlighted by the Woodfox case.
Samuel D’Aquilla, a Louisiana district attorney, told CNN, “I’d like to say for the record, [Woodfox] is a murderer.”
But though Mr. D’Aquilla said he was not in full agreement with the decision to release Woodfox, he acknowledged that “it was probably the best thing to do.”
In a 2010 documentary, Woodfox says the nobility of his cause helped him survive 40 years of solitary: “They might bend me a little bit … but they will never be able to break me.”