A happy Friday to you, my friend.
You might think the cover on this book would indicate how difficult it’d be to get through. I almost quit reading it twice. The first time at around page 63 after growing numb to his life of crime on the streets; and then later on as he described prison life.
But I persisted, and I’m glad I did.
This masterful account, Solitary by Alfred Woodfox, of his 44 years spent in solitary confinement opened my eyes to a reality experienced by many black men raised in poverty. Kept down by racist “policies” in the housing and job industries, having few options with which to gain access to resources (Trevor Noah says “teaching a poor man to fish is great but you got to give him a fishing pole”), frequently living in tapped-out single-parent households, there are few ways out besides crime. Then add police profiling and brutality, higher bail, “cleaning the books”, ineffective representation, and longer sentences for the same crimes as white men, and it’s plain to see why we have prisons with disproportionately more black men than others.
Raised in poverty with no positive male role models, Alfred eventually meets several members of The Black Panther Party while in prison. He hadn’t known a positive and confident role model until then. He was inspired by their acts of generosity in a world of deprivation and sought to live his life similarly: with unity, knowledge, and a code of living. He knew then that he’d dedicate his life for only good. He’d spend the rest of his years in prison working to improve conditions, and with every act of resistance, came more violence and deprivation from prison officials.
But deep institutional racism inside prison targeted Alfred and others who resisted for change. Framed for a murder they did not commit, Alfred and three others would spend decades in solitary confinement, without effective defense or fair trials. Not a single shred of evidence against them existed and even more, inmates were paid by the warden for their statements against the four men. And yet those with power ruled against them. It took decades of appeals and a team of committed lawyers and supporters to eventually get him released. (Spoiler alert: the judicial corruption and racism that wrongly kept him in solitary confinement was still alive and well only four years ago.)
By the end, what I was left with was an enduring respect for Alfred – for the life of integrity he chose amidst unthinkable cruelty and inhumane treatment after being accused of crimes he did not commit. That a human could endure relentless emotional and physical punishments, and not only survive but rise above them, is remarkable. And gives me so much hope for humanity.
I appreciate Mike Farrell’s (of M*A*S*H fame) statement on the inside jacket: “As a citizen of the United States, this book embarrasses me deeply. And it makes me furious.”
In prison and in life, Alfred is determined to not carry bitterness or anger, and survives on the strength of his friendship with two other Panthers. About the Department of Corrections Alfred says, “their main objective was to break my spirit. They did not break me….I had nothing but my word. My word is everything to me. I am nothing without it.”
Comedian Trevor Noah’s account of growing up in segregated South Africa
A beautiful book on this man’s experience growing up black