On 9th September 2007 my world turned upside down. It was early evening after a sunny day, when I received the phone call from my father telling me that my mother was in hospital. I could hear the tremble of fear in his voice. I jumped in a cab and an hour and half later arrived at the hospital to find my mother had suffered a massive haemorrhage. She was pronounced brain-dead fifteen minutes after it occurred.
A few weeks after the death of my mother I received a letter from Albert Woodfox, the longest surviving solitary confinement prisoner in the world. He has been locked in solitary confinement in Loisiana State Penitentiary since April 1972. He wrote to ask if I would like to take my mother’s place on his prison visitors list. I had always been fascinated with the friendship between my mother and Woodfox, so I agreed and travelled to Louisiana, USA, to meet him.
I believe that Albert is innocent. As a member of the Black Panthers, he is a political prisoner. As I see it, there is simply no possible way he could have survived 44 years of solitary confinement, in a six foot by eight foot cell, without being innocent. Innocence is your only thread of hope breaking free from the mental torture, sensual deprivation and brutal physical strain: there must be the belief that at some point justice will be served. Albert can tell you stories of the countless men he has heard through the prison walls who have lost their sanity, ripped their bodies apart, and ended their lives.
So how has Albert survived? And how has he managed to retain his humanity, compassion, and deep understanding of justice? The only power Albert has is the power over his own mind.
One of the fist questions I asked Albert was about the tools he uses to maintain his mental health. I asked partly because my ex-husband really was a prisoner of his own mind – so much so that he broke free and ended his life three years ago. Yet here was Albert living a life so profoundly unfair and yet who seems able to hold his freedom internally. Albert has been rendered invisible by the state: no photographs are allowed to be taken of him, no interviews or filming. He is allowed no visitors other than the ones on a small, strict list. He is treated worse than a serial killer and yet he has no track record of violence. So here he is a man that has conquered the impossible and there is my ex-husband who was so fragile he could not see the gifts that life had on offer for him. What is the difference between them? What does Albert have that my ex-husband didn't?
The idea of mindfulness – of ridding your mind of thoughts and living in the now – is becoming increasingly popular in today’s society. But this is the embodiment of hell for Albert. No one would want to live in Albert's now. The only way that Albert has survived has been through introspection. Filling his mind with the right kinds of thoughts has made his life durable, by giving the context of his life true meaning. So what are the right kinds of thought? Albert does not see himself as an individual victim; he sees himself as a symbol of a larger community, a symbol of the injustices that have occurred in a systematically racist American society: "the prison here,” he told me, “is just a physical representation of the invisible prison black men live in on the outside – what is the difference? ".
Albert believes that his plight is of value to us all. He isn't just fighting for justice for himself, but for everyone, because everyone benefits from a fair society. What I learnt from Albert is that investing in quality thinking and understanding the context of who we are and what we contribute to society can ease the soul, gifting our lives purpose and meaning. Pursuit of individual happiness is the luxury of the wealthy and the privileged. However, if through introspection this pursuit can lead us towards the true goal of reducing unnecessary collective pain it will, by default, create a safer and happier society.
When Socrates claimed an unexamined life is not worth living, I don't believe he meant for us to hold ourselves as the only importance within life. In fact, he is asking us to question where we fit in to the bigger picture – to examine who we are as a collective society and what and how do we as individuals contribute to a larger understanding. There is no doubt that we are thinking, emotional, physical, spiritual beings and that, without examination, we will only ever continue to behave in an instinctive, unconscious, wounded ways. Through examination of the larger picture of life, our own individuality matters less and our collective behaviour becomes more relevant. This will allow us to take responsibility for the collective state of happiness within society which in turn impacts our individual lives in a positive way.
As my family continue to fight for the freedom of the remarkable Albert Woodfox there is a lot to learn from a man who has been cruelly locked away. He has taught me that our thoughts can propel us into self-torture or be the foundations of our survival and allow us to live as worthy global citizens. He is the kind of man who we all need to be walking free.
Image credit: Matteo Paciotti