looking through bars into a prison cell

I was feeling frustrated by pandemic isolation when, surfing around on my phone, I stumbled across a book called Solitary, by Albert Woodfox.

This book has nothing to do with pandemic isolation. It has everything to do with actual solitary confinement: actual lockdown in a tiny prison cell, with few privileges and many indignities.

But the title of the book sparked my curiosity anyway. I wondered, what lessons might this man, who lived for over four decades in solitary confinement, have for those of us softies who are bemoaning our pandemic life? Also, I wondered, what kind of circumstances would cause a man to be locked down in solitary confinement for over four decades? And how did he survive that without going insane?

So, I did what I do and bought the book. The story is told in a plain, straightforward style. It contains more facts than emotions, and can thus come across as more cold and stoic than other modern memoirs; but Woodfox clearly states, in multiple places in the book, that shutting off emotions was a survival strategy for him and others in solitary confinement. He also explains that, even after he was released from prison, when he was 69 years old, it was difficult to adjust his mindset.

Fewer emotions, more facts. But the emotions that come through are powerful, powerful. And the facts that come through are depressing, depressing. Solitary confinement is a combination of minute-by-minute trying to survive and hold onto one’s sanity, and playing the long game of working with attorneys and activists to improve prison conditions, or be moved from solitary confinement to the regular prison population, or (hopefully) be released entirely.

Here are the answers to the three questions I posed above:

Why was Albert Woodfox locked down in solitary confinement for over four decades?

The answer is complicated. He ended up in the prison system because he grew up black and poor in New Orleans in the 1950s and 1960s. He often broke the law in order to obtain food and other necessities for himself and his family. He also broke the law because he saw systemic racism all around him, and other options for living felt impossible and pointless. Other times, he didn’t break the law, but was arrested based on skin color and accused of breaking the law. He ended up in and out of jails and prisons.

In one prison, he was introduced to the Black Panther Party. This changed his life. For the first time, he began to understand the social forces operating around him. He was also inspired to read books and learn from others in the party. Upon being moved to a different prison, he was inspired to take up the cause of social justice and work for better conditions in prison. One awful circumstance around him was rape:

“In his face, I saw a human being who was completely destroyed. Before, I had thought of rape as a physical violence and I felt it was my duty, as a Black Panther, to try to prevent it. Now, I saw that rape went way beyond a physical act. Rape brought about the complete destruction of another human being. . . . I felt a new awareness in my core that harming another human being—in any way—was morally wrong and completely unacceptable, and with that came a lot of shame, because I was flooded by memories of fighting and physically hurting people. I had been violent and cruel to survive the street. With the recognition that I’d been wrong came a great deal of pain. And a new moral principle was born within me: to do no harm. This was a profound moment for me as a man, and as a human being. This was me evolving at my center.”

Woodfox and some friends begin organizing. In the past, Woodfox had tried to improve things on his own; now, he and friends were talking to other prisoners and drumming up support for a variety of humane causes. Conditions in the prison were inhumane in multiple ways. He and his friend Herman became the leaders of a new Black Panther movement in the prison to try to improve conditions.

But when a white guard was stabbed to death by unknown perpetrators, Woodfox and Herman (and some others) were framed for murder. This gave prison authorities the excuse to lock them down in solitary confinement, thus conveniently removing the leaders from the Black Panther organization in the prison. Authorities at the local and state levels never wanted to release them. They were probably scared of what can happen when people organize.

How did Albert Woodfox survive solitary confinement without going insane?

He cultivated mental strength by abiding by the principles of the Black Panther Party. Ironically, the very thing that caused him to be in solitary confinement was the thing that allowed him to survive it.

There were also many specific strategies he used to survive; but having a purpose, and a drive to help people, and a hope for the future of prisoners and blacks around the world, were behind all of the smaller details of his survival.

Are there any lessons we can apply to pandemic life?

Yes! Have a mission and a purpose. Believe in something, work toward it, and keep the faith. This will help you survive anything.

Interestingly, this is the same answer supplied by the perennial bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. Frankl survived the Holocaust, partly by sheer luck, but also partly by having a dream, a book he wanted to write. And he survived and wrote the book. He explains that he witnessed many people in concentration camps who lost their purpose for living, gave up, and died. Horrible but true.

How do I get a mission and purpose?

I don’t know. Only you can answer that question. But if you’re not sure about this, it helps to talk it through with people—friends, therapists, life coaches, etc. It also helps to try a bunch of different activities and see what feels right. And it helps to read a lot to get new ideas; and to think about what you’re good at and what you like doing; and to imagine what you would do with the rest of your life if you could do ANYTHING.

How are you surviving your lockdown?

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