Broken He Is Not - Albert Woodfox
"He was stripped down to his skin
Given clothes that weren’t his
Stamped with a number in the place of his name
But it didn’t break him
With the slamming sound of metal hitting metal
Came the silence, so loud that it could drown out the sound of your own thoughts
But still ... it didn’t break him
Though his movements are slower
his smile is still quick to come and his laugh fills the empty spaces left by pain
And yet still, broken he is not."
A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting across the table from Albert Woodfox -- I never in my life thought I would meet him, let alone he would be free of the man-made restrictions imposed on him for the last 40 years. Yet still, I found myself throwing loving insults to try and distract him from crushing me in a game of dominoes. I'm pretty sure it was the over achiever in me, that thought it was a good idea to challenge him in the first place -- considering I had only just learned how to play a few months prior and the person who taught me, neglected to mention, that there were many versions of the game and many ways to get my ass handed to me.
But the winner in me wouldn't allow me to back out, so over multiple games of dominos (most of which I lost) we talked. At a table, over soup and fuit, at one end sat my friend/coworker Jasmine, me at another and Albert sitting in between us. We found ourselves debating the meaning of love, the passing of time and self-care. I remember leaving that interaction humbled and so full of hope, not only for Albert but for other people who had their lives taken under the false pretense of rehabilitation.
Albert Woodfox, Robert King and Herman Wallace are known as the Angola Three. I first learn of them after receiving a copy of "Sieze The Time" by Bobby Seale in my senior year of high school. After reading about the Black Pantners for the first time, I started doing my own research. Who were they, what did they want and the means in which they went about accomplishing their goals?
After hours reading about them in my local library, you know back when libraries used to be pretty cool, I came across the story of the Angola Three. Fast forward more than 10 years later, I was able to join a community of people at Amnesty International, mostly led by my friend Jasmine, who was fighting to free the last of the Angola Three still behind bars. By this time, Albert (68 years old) had spent 40 years in solitary confinement, in six-by-nine foot cell with little to no human interactions. Albert is thought to hold the record for the longest serving time in solitary confinement, a title, I'm sure he doesn't want.
The United States of America far short when upholding human rights, especially in cases of solitary confinement. Across the USA, more than 80,000 people are being held in solitary confinement. Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has said that holding anyone in solitary confinement in excess of 15 days amounts to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and can rise to the level of torture. Under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, for which the USA is a party to, broadly bans cruel treatment for anyone -- regardless of the circumstances. Which raise the question, is the United States in violation of international law?
I come from communities where men, women and children return... not from war but just as devastating. Some return, with vacant eyes and broken spirits. Other return hopeful, most inmates will never be "lucky" as Albert to finally regain control over their own mobility but after meeting him, Robert and Herman, I'm confident they will continue to fight for improving prison conditions and ending solitary confinement everywhere.
So while prison may have taken his freedom for 40 years, it didn't diminish his quest for justice-- it only removed the chains placed on a sleeping lion.