That's how long Albert Woodfox has spent locked in solitary confinement. Now, however, a Louisiana judge has ordered Woodfox be released.
On Monday, U.S. district judge James Brady granted the 68-year-old his freedom and took the additional step of barring him from standing trial again in connection to his alleged role in the 1972 murder of a prison guard.
Woodfox had been previously tried and convicted in both 1973 and 1988 in connection to the stabbing death of Brent Miller, a guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, the New Orleans Advocate reported. In both cases the convictions were overturned because of jury irregularities; Brady himself threw out the most recent ruling, in 2013, because of racial discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreman. At the time of his release, Woodfox had been awaiting his third trial, the Advocate reported.
Woodfox, who is incarcerated at Angola, was the last of three prisoners held in solitary there to be released. He and fellow inmates Robert King and Herman Wallace, in prison on unrelated charges, were implicated in the guard murder. Throughout his decades-long ordeal, Woodfox maintained his innocence, saying he was unfairly targeted because of his role creating the prison's chapter of the Black Panther Party. When he is released, Woodfox will become the last of the so-called "Angola 3" to win his freedom.
"This order achieves justice," Woodfox's lawyer George Kendall told USA Today. "There cannot be another trial in this case and so this ruling is magnificent."
Solitary confinement is one of the ugliest things that can happen to an inmate of the U.S. prison system. For Woodfox it meant at least 23 hours a day of isolation with the remaining hour given to a "walk alone along the tier on which his cell is located," according to court documents reported by the BBC. Exercise came three times a week, "if the weather permits." In some cases, solitary inmates have small windows in their cells; other times they have none at all.
Today, a growing body of evidence, both from individual anecdotes and scientific studies, has shown the harmful effect solitary confinement can have on a person even long after the experience has ended. "You never come out of solitary confinement the same person again. You don't feel normal," James Buns previously told Mic. Burns was only six when he spent two weeks in solitary at a hospital in Denver as punishment for acting out in school. Studies have shown that prisoners subjected to solitary were eight times more likely to engage in self-harm and five times more likely to commit suicide than the general prison population.
Juan Méndez, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, called for the practice to be outlawed around the world in all but the most exceptional cases, and then only used for as brief a time as possible. Méndez has specifically cited Woodfox's case in the past.
While most everyone can agree some form of punishment is necessary when heinous crimes are committed, there is little to be gained by locking people up in complete isolation for decades on end. Unlike potentially more humane forms of sanction, the practice of solitary confinement does not serve any a rehabilitative purpose and, if reports from prisoners and experts are to be believed, leaves lasting psychological trauma on those who endure it. While the damage is already done for people like Woodfox, it is critical that prisons be reformed so stories like his never happen again.