Author: Albert Woodfox
Links: Indiebound |Goodreads
Summary: This was a powerful story showing the human cost of systemic problems.
This is the memoir of Albert Woodfox, a man who survived more than 40 years of solitary confinement imposed for a crime he didn’t commit. As you might expect, a lot of the power of this book came from the author’s experiences. It was absolutely incredible how he was able to focus on the people who helped him, rather than on those who wronged him. The purpose he found in his life is inspiring.
The writing felt simple and I wasn’t initially certain it would be effective in conveying the horror of his situation. As I read more of Albert’s story though, I found a different sort of power in his matter-of-fact litany of abuses that prisoners faced. He doesn’t emphasize the horror of these abuses through emotional writing. Rather, he shows that the true horror is how common place and expected abuse was, both abuse of prisoners and abuse of the justice system.
The beginning of the story, describing the author’s childhood, was an interesting window into what it was like growing up black in the 1950s-60s. It was less effective as a window into who the author was as a person. it seems likely that he started committing petty thefts, etc because his family was poor and because police injustice and brutality left him with little respect for the law. The reader is left to draw this conclusion on their own though. There was very little introspection in this early section. Even larger events, like abandoning a wife and child in his teens, included no explanation or expressions of regret.
Fortunately, the trajectory of the book seemed to follow the trajectory of Albert’s life. As the author gained political awareness through meeting members of the Black Panthers, his writing moved from sounding like he was repeating to Black Panther slogans to thoughtful commentary on systemic racism and injustice. As the author grew up and had to learn to manage his emotions to survive in solitary, he began to have more insight into himself to share with the reader as well.
The author’s inclusion of political commentary also got more powerful as the book progressed. The initial history of Angola prison, when Albert arrived, felt out-of-place. It seemed unlikely he would have known the information he was sharing at that time in his life. By the epilogue, the statistics he shared about wrongful imprisonment; systemic racism; police brutality; and solitary confinement in the US all had more impact shared against the background of his own personal suffering.
Perhaps mistakenly, I did expect a slightly more information dense text. I have only read the nominees for this award from last year, but something I enjoyed most about those books was the feeling of being filled to the brim with new facts. So far, the only nominee I’ve read this year that was similar is The Heartbeat at Wounded Knee. So, while I blown away by the author of this book and I think this is a story very much worth reading, I’m still rooting for Heartbeat to win the award at the moment.