[Ppnews] Forty years in solitary: two men mark sombre anniversary in Louisiana prison

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 16 12:44:31 EDT 2012

  Forty years in solitary: two men mark sombre anniversary in Louisiana prison

Monday, April 16
They've spent 23 hours of each day in the last 40 
years in a 9ft-by-6ft cell. Now, as human rights 
groups intensify calls for their release, a 
documentary provides insight into an isolated life
"I can make about four steps forward before I 
touch the door," Herman Wallace says as he 
describes the cell in which he has lived for the 
past 40 years. "If I turn an about-face, I'm 
going to bump into something. I'm used to it, and 
that's one of the bad things about it."

On Tuesday, Wallace and his friend Albert Woodfox 
will mark one of the more unusual, and shameful, 
anniversaries in American penal history. Forty 
years ago to the day, they were put into solitary 
confinement in Louisiana's notorious Angola jail. 
They have been there ever since.

They have spent 23 hours of every one of the past 
14,610 days locked in their single-occupancy 
9ft-by-6ft cells. Each cell, Amnesty 
International records, has a toilet, a mattress, 
sheets, a blanket, pillow and a small bench 
attached to the wall. Their contact with the 
world outside the windowless room is limited to 
the occasional visit and telephone call, 
"exercise" three times a week in a caged concrete 
yard, and letters that are opened and read by prison guards.

A new documentary film takes us into that cell, 
providing rare insight into the personal 
psychological impact of such prolonged isolation. 
Herman's House tracks the experiences and 
thoughts of Wallace as he reflects on four decades banged away in a box.

The film is based on recorded telephone 
conversations between Wallace and the 
documentary's director Angad Bhalla. Wallace, a 
New Orleans native now aged 70, speaks with 
powerful understatement about his time in solitary.
Angola prison Louisiana The entrance to Angola 
prison. Photograph: Judi Bottoni/AP

"Being in a cage for such an extended period of 
time, it has its downfalls. You may not feel it, 
you may not know it, you may think you're OK, and 
you're just perfunctory about it."

In recordings that are not included in the film 
but have been made available to the Guardian, 
Wallace gives more detail about his cell: "Every 
time I stand up from the bed I could hit my hips 
on the table, it's that close. As far as moving 
about – there is no movement. I suffer from 
arthritis that has come about because of being in the cell."

Wallace was first imprisoned in 1967 after he 
commited a bank robbery. The late sixties were a 
heady time inside Angola, reputed to be the worst 
jail in America, whose 5,000 inmates were still 
racially segregated and where violence and sexual slavery were rampant.

Wallace, Woodfox and a third black man, Robert 
King, came together to form a chapter of the 
Black Panther movement inside the prison, hoping 
to organise African American inmates against the 
brutal treatment they endured. Then on April 17, 
1972, a prison guard called Brent Miller was 
murdered during an arrest on one of the wings.

The Angola 3 were immediately accused of the 
murder, and placed that same day in solitary. 
They have insisted ever since on their innocence, 
pointing to the lack of any physical evidence 
linking them to Miller's death and suggestions 
that the main eyewitness against them was bribed by prison officials.

They say that the murder charge was trumped up to 
punish them for their political activities.

Since 1972, Wallace and Woodfox have been brought 
before more than 150 prison boards where their 
unprecedented duration in solitary confinement 
has been reviewed only for them to be sent 
straight back to their cells. The only 
explanation given: "Nature of the original reason for lockdown".

"This is a case of innocence and the abuse of 
human rights," Robert King said on the eve of the 
anniversary. King's conviction was overturned and 
he was released in 2001, and he said he fears for 
his former fellow inmates now bearing in mind 
that they have spent more than a decade longer in solitary than he did.

"I was in a six-by-nine cell for 29 years and I 
know what it did to me – it shunk the brain, it 
shrunk the individual. You become acclimatised to small distances."

Amnesty hopes to build pressure on the governor 
of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, to release the two 
remaining men from solitary by delivering a 
petition bearing more than 65,000 signatures to 
the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge on 
Tuesday. The human rights organisation decries 
their prolonged solitary incarceration as a form 
of cruel and inhumane treatment that is banned 
under both the US constitution and international law.

In his recorded conversations with Bhalla, 
Wallace gives a glimpse into his mental state 
after so long alone. He says his memory is 
deteriorating. "A lot of times I lose it. I have 
trouble coming up with the simplest of things, the A,B,C..."

Many days he doesn't bother to come out of his 
cell at all, he tells Balla. "I have to spend a 
lot of time reading and writing. It helps me to 
maintain what little sanity I have left, to 
maintain humanity and dignity and to fight back 
to what people are trying to do to Albert and I from a mental perspective."

The film follows the relationship between Wallace 
and a young artist called Jackie Sumell who was 
so outraged by his story that she decided to help 
him imaginatively escape from solitary 
confinement by having him design his perfect 
house. She asked him to describe to her the ideal house of his dreams.

"What kind of house do a man in solitary dream 
about?" he says in the film. "I don't dream about 
no house. Being out there in the streets, even if 
I was homeless, I'd be satisfied."

But he does go on to design for Sumell his 
perfect house, sending her drawings and 
descriptions in words from which she builds a 
recreation of Herman's house as an art installation.

"In the front of the house," he writes, "I have 
gardens full of gardenias, carnations and tulips. 
This is of the utmost importance. I would like my 
guests to be able to smile and watch the flowers all day long."

Beside the gardens is a swimming pool with a 
large black panther drawn in tiles on the bottom. 
Entering the house, there is a wall lined with 
portraits of rebel slave leaders and 
abolitionists – Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, 
Nat Turner, John Brown and Harriet Tubman.

In the master bedroom upstairs there is a 
king-sized bed, African art on the walls, and a 
mirror ceiling (remember, Wallace has been jailed 
since 1967). Next to the bedroom is an ensuite 
bathroom which contains the most telling 
imaginary detail of all: a bath tub in which the 
free Herman Wallace will be able to wallow.

It measures 9ft by 6ft, the size of his cell for the past 40 years.

Herman's House, directed by Angad Bhalla and 
produced by Lisa Valencia-Svensson, will be shown 
at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival on April 27.

     © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or 
its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


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