On March 1, Maurice Hastings was officially declared innocent after spending 38 years in prison wrongfully convicted of murder. I saw the announcement while channel-surfing in my four-and-a-half by 10-foot cell on San Quentin State Prison’s death row, where I have been since I, too, was wrongfully convicted in 1999. Since learning the news, I’ve been reflecting on the legacy of one of my heroes: Albert Woodfox.
Long COVID has made a mess of my memory, but it seems like just yesterday when on August 5, 2022, I received the news of Albert’s passing. He had died on August 4, of COVID complications.
You may know of Albert as the former Black Panther who survived the longest-known period of solitary confinement in US history, isolated in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary for nearly 44 years. I first spoke with him by phone in 2021, five years after his release. Though we didn’t know each other long, he had promised to do everything in his power to help me win my freedom, and he’d held true to that.
Since that moment, through the lowest times of my life—even when I was sentenced to death—I have never quite been alone.
Like most days, on August 5 I’d woken at 6 am, said a prayer, and readied myself for a day of writing. I’d planned to reach out to Albert and thank him for agreeing to speak on camera about my wrongful conviction. I didn’t get the chance.
I’d learned of Albert and his decades-long fight when I first went to solitary confinement in 1999. I’d just been arrested for murders I did not commit. My initial belief that someone would realize there’d been a mistake was slipping away. But former Black Panther Bill Jennings sent me A People’s History of the United States and other writing about political prisoners, and I turned my cell into a study hall.
Reading about the injustices endured by the Angola Three—Herman Wallace, Robert King and Albert—I began to understand that what was happening to me has happened to others, and that my fight for freedom was not only mine. Since that moment, through the lowest times of my life—even when I was sentenced to death—I have never quite been alone.
I followed the struggles of the Angola Three closely. I rejoiced when King was released in 2001, and watched as he worked to free Wallace and Albert. I celebrated when Wallace was released in 2013, and mourned when he died two days later. In 2016, my 17th year on death row, I felt joy: Albert had been released, living proof that it was possible to make it out and prevail against this system designed to break us.
The freedom Albert fought for wasn’t just his or mine, It was for all of us.
In 2019, after two decades of feeling a kinship with the Angola Three, the stars aligned in a way I’d never expected. I was asked to participate in Solitary Gardens, a project honoring the legacies of the Angola Three by helping people imagine a world without prisons. Being invited to join Albert, Wallace and King, working toward the abolition of prisons and to “free them all,” I felt rejuvenated in the struggle. I was seen.
Meeting Albert and being able to count him as a friend is something I will cherish forever. His kindness, caring and sincerity surpassed all my expectations.
To know that he is no longer here is crushing. I have lost a friend, a champion, a source of strength and hope. The freedom he fought for wasn’t just his or mine, it was for all of us.
Albert had talked to me about the delicate dance, the psychological tightrope one walks when grieving the loss of a loved one from a prison cell. Now that his is the death I am grieving, I hold his words close: We must carry on the struggle for those who have gone before. We must continue to fight for change, even when grief threatens to subsume us.
Rest in power, Albert Woodfox. Rest in power, Herman Wallace. Rest in power.
Image of Herman Wallace (left), Albert Woodfox and Robert King via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 1.0