Coping with life after 43 years in solitary confinement

I watched him closely. He was intently observing the birds and the clouds, breathing in the warm river air, and looking with fascination at the vessels navigating the great Mississippi.

When you know where he has spent most of his life, it's no wonder that Albert Woodfox was relishing the sights and sounds of everyday life in Louisiana.

Albert has a distinction he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy. Before he was released earlier this year, he was America's longest-serving solitary confinement prisoner.

He spent almost 44 years in isolation, living alone in a six-feet by nine-feet cell, shut off from the outside world for 23 hours a day.

Albert Woodfox was in prison for armed robbery. But in 1972 he was convicted, along with Herman Wallace, of murdering a prison guard. Many of those who studied the case felt it was a miscarriage of justice.

There was no forensic evidence, and both men claimed they were being punished for their black activism.

Albert's story is one of the most disturbing to emerge from America's controversial use of solitary confinement as a means of exerting control over prisoners.

He saw men go insane inside their cells:

It usually manifests itself in guys curling up in their bunks in a foetal position. They become catatonic, wouldn't talk, wouldn't answer. Or in some cases, guys scream, start screaming, couldn't stop.

Albert Woodfox

I asked Albert, who is now 69 and still adjusting to his freedom, how he survived more than four decades in solitary confinement. How did he not lose his sanity?

We were determined not to become institutionalised. So the cells that were meant to be a death chamber for us became a classroom, they became a university, became a law school. A debate hall. This was our shield against insanity.

Albert Woodfox

It is a story of survival and of adjustment. I asked Albert what had changed most in America during the 43 years since he had been locked up.

I expected him to talk about the dizzying pace of technological change or the pride in having a black president.

But after a pause, he told me the biggest surprise - and the greatest disappointment - is what hasn't changed since the early 1970s.

He was released into a nation still struggling with racial turmoil and injustice, just like it was when he was first locked up.

The only difference is that when I left (to be imprisoned) racism was brutal and open in American society; now it's more subtle. Racists and bigots in this country now use code words.

Albert Woodfox

Albert is now a man with a mission. He wants to highlight the use - and the abuse - of solitary confinement in America and around the world. His story shines a light on one of the darkest and least accessible aspects of life behind bars.

  • Robert Moore's interview with Albert Woodfox can be seen on ITV's On Assignment on Tuesday 25th October at 10:40pm.