Law \ Legal

The Tragedy of Albert Woodfox

photo of man with beard

Albert Woodfox courtesy

Albert Woodfox, a noted prison activist and celebrated author, died on Aug. 4, 2022 in New Orleans at the age of 75 from COVID complications.

He spent 42 years in solitary confinement at Angola prison, a sentence considered the longest in U.S. history, for a crime he did not commit.

Here’s how I know.

While I never met Albert Woodfox, we were both in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola at the same time, and a lawsuit I filed set off the chain of events that led to his extraordinary punishment.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Woodfox would eventually win national acclaim for the stark memoir he published in 2019 after emerging from prison. In “Solitary,” a National Book Award finalist, he described how he maintained his dignity and humanity in the face of near round-the-clock abuse which included being gassed and beaten repeatedly. 

In 1970, I filed a crude, hand-written federal civil rights lawsuit that challenged conditions on Louisiana’s death row where I was housed at the time. The lawsuit was summarily dismissed by the local federal court.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, recognized the merits of the lawsuit in November of that same year. The appeals court remanded the lawsuit back to the lower court.

On Sept. 21, 1971, the first prisoners’ rights lawsuit victory in Louisiana, Sinclair v. Henderson, and handed down by a Baton Rouge federal judge.

The ensuing “Sinclair decision” exploded in Angola like a nuclear reactor blowing apart. It caused significant social upheavals in the 18,000-acre prison plantation,

Then the brutal murder of a 23-year-old white Angola prison guard named Brent Miller also rocked the prison—a death some believed at the time was caused by the Sinclair lawsuit.

Miller was killed on the morning of April 17, 1972 by “Black militant” inmates who had been released days earlier from maximum security lockdown because of Sinclair v. Henderson.

Woodfox and fellow Black Panther Party member Herman Wallace, known as “Hooks,”  were convicted and received life sentences in connection with the guard’s death.

In 1973, I became friends with a black militant inmate named Irvin “Life” Breaux. He and a group of Nation of Islam Muslims had formed an organization called the “Brotherhood” that protected young inmates from prison rape. He had also been linked to the Miller killing.

Life and I were walking The Yard one day when the Miller killing came up. I told him I didn’t believe Woodfox or Wallace had anything to do with it..

“I know they didn’t,” Life said, “because I killed the dude.”

I did not react to the revelation.

“That day,” he continued, “me and some other brothers planned to take out some snitches. Two of them I was going to do myself.”

Life said Miller walked into the dorm that morning while all the other inmates were away for breakfast in the chow hall.

“We were getting some shanks we had stashed in a prison coat in a foot locker,” Life explained. “Miller saw us. He tried to make it out the dorm. We got to him and stabbed him.”

I said nothing. Miller was obviously not their target.

On Aug. 11, 1973, Life was stabbed to death by two inmates—the same two, I believe, he had planned to kill the morning Miller was killed.

It was always whispered in the inmate underworld that Life was killed because of his role (whatever that may have been) in the Miller killing.

Five years later, as co-editor of the prison’s newsmagazine The Angolite, I was the recipient of the 1980 American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award for an article I wrote, “A Prison Tragedy,” about Life’s death.

Then, in 2001, after the publication of my prison memoir, “A Life in the Balance,” I was contacted by a New York supporter of Woodfox and Wallace.

After reading my memoir, the supporter had a “gut feeling” that I had information about the Miller killing.  I conveyed to him the information Life had given me but I did not know how valuable it would be to Woodfox and Wallace.

The supporter arranged a meeting between me and Scott Fleming, an Oakland-based attorney representing Woodfox and Wallace.

I described to Fleming the 1973 conversation I had with Life.

That information, if true, exonerated Woodfox and Wallace.

I told Fleming I had no way of verifying what Life told me. It was simply prison information I had stored away in the recesses of my brain for nearly 30 years.

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Certain aspects of the information intrigued Fleming because it either corroborated or fit into a chronology of other information he had developed about the case. I gave him a sworn affidavit to use as he saw fit in his effort to free Woodfox and Wallace.

Then, two years after my 2006 parole release, I was contacted by Laura Sullivan with NPR’s All Things Considered program. She had been given information that I had some “insight” in the Angola Two case.

In October 2008 I was interviewed by Sullivan at NPR’s studio in New York City for a three-part series she was doing on Woodfox and Wallace. This is the way she conveyed to the public what Life told me:

“One former inmate at the time, Billy Wayne Sinclair, thinks [Woodfox and Wallace] didn’t [kill Miller] either. He says an inmate named Irvin Breaux, whose nickname was ‘Life,’ told him that he killed Miller.

“Sinclair and other inmates say Breaux was involved with the inmates who firebombed a guard shack the day before Miller’s murder. Buried in FBI reports is a note that a group calling themselves the The VanGuard Army took credit for the bombing and promised more attacks.

She went on to quote me, correctly.

“Sinclair says Breaux told him Miller walked in on him and other inmates plotting an attack. They panicked and killed him.

“‘I [knew] Life personally,’ Sinclair says. ‘He had no reason to lie to me. He had no reason to try to impress me or make himself out to be some dangerous person. It was well known he was one of the most dangerous inmates at the prison.’”

I feel the same way to this day.

I do not “know” if Life killed Brent Miller. What I do know is that he told me he did.

And too this day, I still do not know if Woodfox or Wallace participated in any way in the killing of Brent Miller.

What I do know is this:

Billly Sinclair

Life was murdered; Hooks died in hospice care three days after his 2013 release from Angola; and Woodfox spent nearly 44 years in solitary confinement before being released from Angola in 2016 only to die six short years later from Covid.

I spent 40 years in the Louisiana prison system (ten of which were in solitary confinement) before being paroled in April 2006.

And we will never really know who actually killed Brent Miller.

Billy Sinclair spent 40 years in the Louisiana prison system, six of which were on death row. He is a published author, an award-winning journalist (a George Polk Award recipient), and the co-host of the criminal justice podcast, “Justice Delayed.”

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