HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford has awarded this year’s prestigious Stowe Prize for literature to a former prison inmate. The Center has also found a unique way of honoring a unique author in the time of social-distancing.
“I spent 44 years and 10 months in solitary confinement because of my political beliefs,” said Albert Woodfox.
In the 1960s, Woodfox was active in the Black Panthers and went on to be one of the “Angola 3” – three prisoners in Louisiana’s infamous state penitentiary nicknamed “Angola,” held in solitary for decades.
Woodfox’s conviction was eventually overturned, but not before he spent the longest time in solitary in American prison history.
“It’s strange because when I was in prison I never lost hope, even in solitary, that I would be free one day,” Woodfox said.
Woodfox was released four years ago, then started writing a book about his experiences, which is this year’s winner of the Stowe Prize.
“It honors an author who has written a book of general adult fiction or non-fiction that importantly illuminates a contemporary social justice issue,” explained Briann Greenfield, Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Just like Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did with slavery.
Woodfox is this year’s Stowe Prize winner for his book, simply titled “Solitary.”
“It’s a story that forces us to look at our criminal justice system, as well as systematic racism both in our criminal justice system and our society at large,” Greenfield said.
Months of protests have made racism one of the two biggest stories of the year.
“I’m very, very cautiously optimistic that this is the turning point,” said Woodfox about the current national debate. Woodfox says his commitment to racial equality is part of what kept him going through nearly 45 years of solitary.
“Remaining active in what I believed in and not allowing the system, or the individuals who were sheltered by the system to break me,” Woodfox said.
That gives him a unique perspective on the other big story of the year: the COVID-19 pandemic and the kind of solitary confinement it has imposed on many.
“If there is a silver lining in this craziness, people will have a much better idea what solitary confinement is now,” said Woodfox.
They can also learn that from a patch of garden on the grounds of the Stowe Center. The garden is exactly the size of a solitary confinement cell. It was designed by artist jackie sumell (who does not use capital letters).
The plants are from the Stowe grounds, but around the edges is what sumell calls “revolutionary mortar,” which is Connecticut lime mixed with cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, and indigo – the major crops enslaved people were forced to grow.
“It links the history of slavery and injustice to the contemporary incarceration system,” Greenfield explained.
It is beauty and art out of a solitary confinement cell. Just like Woodfox’s book, and his attitude, too.
Even in all those years alone, he made and kept a pledge to himself: “Be a decent human being, a social activist, and a champion for humanity.”
So much humanity in someone who was cut off from all of humanity for so long.
The public is not allowed inside the Harriet Beecher Stowe House or the Stowe Center now because of the pandemic. You can, however, come and experience the power of the solitary garden for yourself and tour the rest of the grounds, as well. Plus there are many other events the center is holding online.