ACLU: You wrote recently that you walked out [of Angola] but you’re still there. What’s it like, at this point, to be out?
Robert King: When I left Angola, I stated that even though I was free of Angola, Angola would never be free of me. I felt like I needed to reach back and shed some light on exactly what was going on. After having gone through what I went through, it would seem idiotic for me to live some type of sedated lifestyle.
It’s been busy, but it’s been rewarding. What we’re seeing today is the fruit of our labors [to call attention to the cases of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox]. I feel good about it, I feel that it’s been rewarding.
ACLU: Do you have lasting effects from being in solitary confinement for so long? For example, you talk about problems with your eyesight? Is that still ongoing?
RK: You know, in the 80s, I filed a lawsuit with regards to [my] eyesight. I used to wear glasses. It was in 1983, and I couldn’t see really six feet in front of me. What had happened was my eyes had become acclimated to smaller distances. The thought dawned on me, that being in a small cell like that, you could be impacted.
There’s some things that you never get over. Just being there, and aging, can exacerbate other external things that might be a factor. And in prison, there are a lot of external things. Stress-related stuff, the food that they give you, the diet, you can be injured any time, even though you live in maximum security.
I have high blood pressure, of course. I still have night sweats. I don’t know if 29 years in solitary confinement was a contributing factor or not.
I think I got out in time, maybe that I could salvage some things. When I was released, I was 58 years old. Now Albert [Woodfox], is seven years beyond 58, and Herman [Wallace] is 10 years, he’s 70 now. How much damage has been done to their physical beings, and their eyes, being in that type of environment?
ACLU: What about the emotional side?
RK: Being in solitary confinement is nothing enjoyable, I can tell you this. It definitely wears you down and tears you down to a great degree.
The worst thing, the punishment that I underwent was separating from people. Just being on a tier [a prison hallway] with someone, maybe hearing a voice every now and then, while it’s not total sensory deprivation, it is almost worse. That has a tendency to dehumanize people.
Most times people hear me talking, and they’ll ask me a lot of the time, why aren’t you insane? I would like to think that I’m very sane.
But I’m also prone to tell people that it’s impossible to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking. Or not come up smelling. The impact, even though there might not be a physical stench, the psychological stench is something that I can’t even fathom.
Only thing I know is this, when you are in solitary confinement, the best way I could describe it is, the soul cries and I think the brain shrinks. Especially if you are in a 6x9x12 foot cell, your brain is automatically shrinking, and I think everything else shrinks with it. And I think that’s lasting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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