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Solitary

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Praise for Solitary:

FINALIST FOR THE PULITZER PRIZE IN GENERAL NONFICTION
FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN NONFICTION
Named One of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2019
Winner of the Stowe Prize
Named the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year
Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Publishers Weekly, BookBrowse, and Literary Hub
Winner of the BookBrowse Award for Best Debut of 2019
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

“An uncommonly powerful memoir about four decades in confinement . . . A profound book about friendship . . . Woodfox reminds us, in Solitary, of the tens of thousands of men, women, and children in solitary confinement in the United States. This is torture of a modern variety. If the ending of this book does not leave you with tears pooling down in your clavicles, you are a stronger person than I am. More lasting is Woodfox’s conviction that the American justice system is in dire need of reform.”—Dwight Garner, New York Times

“A candid, heartbreaking, and infuriating chronicle . . . as well as a personal narrative that shows how institutionalized racism festered at the core of our judicial system and in the country’s prisons . . . It’s impossible to read Solitary and not feel anger . . . A timely memoir of that experience that should be required reading in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s also a story of conviction and humanity that shows some spirits are unbreakable.”—NPR

“Heart-rending . . . Solitary is Woodfox’s pointillist account of an already boxed-in childhood and adolescence in the streets of New Orleans—by his own admission, an existence marked by ignorance and devoted to petty and increasingly serious crime—and the near entirety of an intellectually and spiritually expansive adulthood spent in one of the most brutal prisons in the country (and therefore the world) . . . Some of the most touching writing on platonic male friendship I have every encountered . . . ‘We must imagine Sisyphus happy,’ Camus famously wrote, and such a prompt is the ennobling virtue at the core of Solitary. It lifts the book above mere advocacy or even memoir and places it in the realm of stoic philosophy.”—Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York Times Book Review

“Wrenching, sometimes numbing, sometimes almost physically painful to read. You want to turn away, put the book down: Enough, no more! But you can’t, because after forty-plus years, the very least we owe Woodfox is attention to his story . . . [Solitary’s] moral power is so overwhelming . . . Solitary should make every reader writhe with shame and ask: What am I going to do to help change this?”Washington Post

Solitary is evidence of Woodfox’s extraordinary mental resilience in the face of relentless state cruelty. The pacing is brisk, with brief stops to reflect on the United States’ mass incarceration of black people, Woodfox’s black identity, and his personal philosophy, much of it centered on the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program. Woven together, these strands form an indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system that should be read for generations.”Globe and Mail

“We have had the opportunity to read a new book called Solitary by Albert Woodfox. Anyone who believes in capital punishment should read it . . . We should consider the story of Albert Woodfox. How can you call for the death penalty when you know an innocent man could be in the gallows? Is that risk civilized society can take? Not here, not now. Not ever again.”—Art Cullen, Storm Lake Times

“[Woodfox’s] incredible story is necessary reading, not only to understand our era of mass incarceration, but the entire history of the judicial system in America.”Town & Country

“In this devastating, superb memoir, Woodfox reflects on his decades inside the Louisiana prison system . . . The book is a stunning indictment of a judicial system ‘not concerned with innocence or justice,’ and a crushing account of the inhumanity of solitary confinement. This breathtaking, brutal, and intelligent book will move and inspire readers.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“In beautifully poetic language that starkly contrasts the world he’s describing, Woodfox awes and inspires. He illustrates the power of the human spirit, while illuminated the dire need for prison reform in the United States. Solitary is a beautiful blend of passion, terror, and hope that everyone needs to experience.”Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“A man who spent four decades in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit tells his shocking story . . . Woodfox explains how he overcame [brutal conditions] despite relentless despair . . . An important story for these times . . . An astonishing true saga of incarceration that would have surely faced rejection if submitted as a novel on the grounds that it could never happen in real life.”Kirkus Reviews

Solitary is an astounding story and makes clear the inhumanity of solitary confinement. How Albert Woodfox maintained his compassion and sense of hope throughout his ordeal is both amazing and inspiring.”—Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning, winner of the National Book Award

“Sage, profound and deeply humane, Albert Woodfox has authored an American testament. Solitary is not simply an indictment of the cruelties, absurdities and hypocrisies of the criminal justice system, it is a call to conscience for all who have allowed these acts to be done in our name.”—Jelani Cobb, author of The Substance of Hope

“A man who would not be broken. Not by more than 40 years of solitary in Angola, not by maddening injustice in courts, not by beatings, isolation, or loneliness. Albert’s courage, wisdom, and kindness will inspire all who fight for social justice and have the good sense to read this book.”—Barry Scheck, Co-Founder of the Innocence Project

“Albert Woodfox’s extraordinary life story is both an inspiring triumph of the human spirit and a powerful call for the necessity of prison reform.”—Van Jones, President of the Dream Corps and Host of CNN’s “The Van Jones Show”

“Albert Woodfox shares his coming-of-age story with crystal clear-eyed perspective, holding nothing back as he unwraps the unvarnished truth of his life. Deftly weaving the undeniable threads of race, class, and systemic inequities that made his story—and so many similar ones—possible, his journey of resilience, perseverance, growth, and triumph is at once a cautionary tale, a challenge to all we think we know about the justice system, and an inspiring testimony to the power of the human spirit.”—Reverend Leah Daughtry, co-author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics

Solitary is the stunning record of a hero’s journey. In it a giant, Albert Woodfox, carries us boldly and without apology through the powerful, incredibly painful yet astonishingly inspiring story of a life lived virtually in chains. He is, as readers will learn, a ‘Man of Steel.’

Every white person in America must read this book. It should be required reading for every advocate of ‘law and order,’ every prosecutor, every warden, every prison guard and every police officer in America. It should be taught in every law school and every political science class. And any ‘public servant’ currently holding a local, state or federal office who refuses to read it should step down.

As a citizen of the United States, this book embarrasses me deeply. And it makes me furious.”—Mike Farrell, author of Just Call Me Mike and Of Mule and Man

ISBN-13: 9780802148308

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic Inc.

Publication Date: 12-03-2019

Pages: 448

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Albert Woodfox was born in 1947 in New Orleans. A committed activist in prison, he remained so after his release, speaking to a wide array of audiences, including the Innocence Project, Harvard, Yale, and other universities, the National Lawyers Guild, as well as at Amnesty International events in London, Paris, Denmark, Sweden, and Belgium. His book Solitary was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and winner of the Stowe Prize and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year. It was published in the UK, Canada, Australia, Spain, Germany, and Brazil. He passed away in 2022.

Read an Excerpt

February 19, 2016.

I woke in the dark. Everything I owned fit into two plastic garbage bags in the corner of my cell. “When are these folks gonna let you out,” my mom used to ask me. Today, mom, I thought. The first thing I’d do is go to her grave. For years I lived with the burden of not saying goodbye to her. That was a heavy weight I’d been carrying.

I rose and made my bed, swept and mopped the floor. I took off my sweatpants and folded them, placing them in one of the bags. I put on an orange prison jumpsuit required for my court appearance that morning. A friend had given me street clothes to wear, for later. I laid them out on my bed.

Many people wrote me in prison over the years, asking me how I survived four decades in a single cell, locked down 23 hours a day. I turned my cell into a university, I wrote them, a hall of debate, a law school. By taking a stand and not backing down, I told them. I believed in humanity, I said. I loved myself. The hopelessness, the claustrophobia, the brutality, the fear, I didn’t say. I looked out the window. A news van was parked down the road outside the jail, headlights still on, though it was getting light now. I’ll be able to go anywhere. To see the night sky. I sat back on my bunk and waited.

Table of Contents

Prologue xiii

Chapter 1 In the Beginning 1

1960s

Chapter 2 The High Steppers 13

Chapter 3 Car Chase 21

Chapter 4 Angola, 1960s 24

Chapter 5 Prison Days 31

Chapter 6 Parole and Back Again 39

Chapter 7 Stickup Artist 46

Chapter 8 Tony's Green Room 52

Chapter 9 Escape 56

1970s

Chapter 10 Meeting the Black Panther Party 63

Chapter 11 What Is the Party? 67

Chapter 12 NYC Prison Riot 74

Chapter 13 Hostages 80

Chapter 14 Angola, 1971 84

Chapter 15 Herman Wallace 91

Chapter 16 April 17, 1972 96

Chapter 17 CCR 103

Chapter 18 King Arrives 113

Chapter 19 CCR Wars 115

Chapter 20 My Trial, 1973 126

Chapter 21 Herman's Trial, 1974 142

Chapter 22 King Is Set Up 150

Chapter 23 Gary Tyler 154

Chapter 24 Food Slots 157

Chapter 25 My Greatest Achievement 161

Chapter 26 Strip Search Battle 165

1980s

Chapter 27 "I Got You" 175

Chapter 28 Sick Call 185

Chapter 29 The Shakedown and the Sham of the Reclass Board 189

Chapter 30 Comrades 195

Chapter 31 Contact Visit 201

Chapter 32 Maturity 206

1990s

Chapter 33 Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied 213

Chapter 34 My Greatest Loss 220

Chapter 35 Preparing for My Trial 225

Chapter 36 Amite City 230

Chapter 37 The Crusaders 236

Chapter 38 My Trial, 1998 240

Chapter 39 Back to Angola 250

2000-2010

Chapter 40 We Stand Together 261

Chapter 41 Hidden Evidence 266

Chapter 42 King Leaves the Belly of the Beast 275

Chapter 43 Torture at Camp J 278

Chapter 44 Cruel and Unusual 288

Chapter 45 "Are You Still Sane?" 297

Chapter 46 2008 302

Chapter 47 Never Apart 329

2011-2016

Chapter 48 Torture 341

Chapter 49 Forty Years 344

Chapter 50 Man of Steel 352

Chapter 51 The Ends of Justice 372

Chapter 52 Theories 387

Chapter 53 The Struggles Continues 393

Chapter 54 A Plea for Freedom, Not Justice 397

Epilogue 405

Acknowledgments 415

Index 419