In Angad Bhalla's documentary we follow inmate Herman Wallace as he describes to artist Jackie Sumell what his dream house looks like after forty years in an isolation cell
It was known as the “bloodiest prison in the South.” Armed convicts served as guards, resulting in the deaths of 40 prisoners. Sexual slavery was rampant, victims raped so violently they sometimes died from their injuries. A place where racial segregation, brutal violence and systematic corruption were commonplace.
In 1972, Herman Wallace was put into solitary confinement in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison. Over 40 years later, he's still there.
He exists in 6ft by 8ft windowless cell. Three times a week, for just one hour, he's permitted to exercise in an outdoor cage. His letters are opened and read by prison guards. He endures months between phone calls.
Wallace and two other men, Albert Woodfox and Robert King, are known as the Angola Three. Collectively, they've spent over 100 years in solitary confinement.
“They no longer live their lives for themselves, for freedom or to end the torture they go through,” artist Jackie Sumell says of Wallace and Woodfox. “They live their lives so that nobody else has to suffer what they're enduring.”
Sumell has been friends with the Angola Three for over a decade. She first became aware of their plight after attending a lecture given by King, who had just been released after 29 years in solitary. She asked King what she could do to help. His reply was simply: “Write to my comrades.”
Sumell met Herman Wallace for the first time in 2003. He was locked in what Angola calls the 'Dungeon': “More punitive than solitary confinement,” she says. As Wallace's living conditions were even more extreme than those of Woodfox, Sumell devised an imaginative new exhibition allowing him to escape the confines of his cell. What house, she asked, does a man who's spent four decades in solitary confinement dream of living in? 'The House that Herman Built' was born.
“I don't dream about no house,” Wallace said when first asked about the project. “Being out there in the streets, even if I was homeless, I'd be satisfied.” Eventually, through a string of phone calls, letters and detailed drawings, Wallace began to depict the house of his dreams.
“In the front of the house I have three squares of gardens – the gardens are the easiest for me to imagine,” Wallace said. “And I can see they would be full of gardenias, carnations and tulips. This is of the utmost importance. I would like my guests to be able to smile and walk through flowers all day long.”
He describes a swimming pool with a “large green bottom and large black panther in the centre.” The kitchen's “wall of revolutionary fame” displays portraits of rebel slave leaders and abolitionists. The master bedroom is adorned in “African art” and has a mirrored ceiling above a king-sized bed. Most poignant of all is the bath tub in the master bathroom, measuring 6ft by 9ft: “The cell I presently live in,” Wallace says, “is but 6ft by 8ft.”
Wallace was first imprisoned for bank robbery in 1967. Angola, the world's largest maximum security prison, is an 18,000-acre former slave plantation named after the African country many of its slaves were shipped from. Far from a model prison today, it's a world away from the primitive, barbaric existence inmates endured in the late-60s and early-70s.
Wallace and Woodfox formed a chapter of the Black Panthers to educate and organise fellow African-American prisoners against the system that brutalised them. These were peaceful, non-violent protests in the form of hunger and work strikes, but they caught the attention of the Louisiana media and its elected leaders. Anxious to curb the unwanted attention Angola was receiving, prison officials began punishing inmates they saw as agitators.
In 1972, a prison guard, 23-year-old Brent Miller, was murdered during an arrest on one of the wings. Over 200 inmates were rounded up and taken to a makeshift interrogation centre, one floor above death row. According to court records, prison officials didn't question a single white inmate.
Wallace and Woodfox were eventually found guilty of the murder by an all-white jury and sent immediately to solitary confinement. King also came under investigation – despite moving to Angola after Miller's murder. (King was later convicted of a separate murder, though another prisoner had confessed sole responsibility. His mouth was taped shut during the trial.)
The prosecution’s key witness, Hezekiah Brown, originally said he hadn't seem Miller's murder. New evidence shows Brown, a serial rapist serving a life sentence, testified in exchange for a weekly pack of cigarettes and a move to the most comfortable area of the prison. Prints collected at the scene of the crime were never tested. Other DNA evidence was “lost”. Another inmate, Irvin Breaux, admitted to a fellow prisoner he killed Miller. Even the prison guard's widow, Leontine Verrett, is certain the pair are innocent. Yet Wallace and Woodfox remain in solitary confinement.
“He's in solitary because of his political beliefs,” Angad Bhalla says. “That's something the warden actually said in a recorded testimony to the court.” Bhalla is the director of 'Herman's House', a new documentary exploring both the Sumell's ongoing project and the unique friendship she's developed with Wallace as a result. “Most people go into solitary and break down. Herman is the exception.”
Bhalla's documentary is a shrewd indictment of solitary confinement and the devastating psychological, psychiatric and physical impact it has on prisoners. It's a protest movie without being sententious. He achieves this by employing several interesting cinematic techniques.
Angola's shadow looms large throughout the film, but the audience sees very little footage of the prison. Except for the occasional photo, Wallace doesn't appear on screen. Yet recordings of him speaking – phone conversations with Bhalla and Sumell – are enough to construct a clear persona. Herman's House is also, crucially, a movie about friendship.
Wallace comes across as gentle and kind, articulate and perspicacious, comforting Sumell through her own personal problems, encouraging and even reprimanding her while working on their project together.
It's because Wallace remains so compassionate and dignified, Bhalla says, that Angola sees him as a threat. He undermines the whole concept of solitary confinement: that by dehumanising inmates, it becomes acceptable to force every physically able body – out of some 80,000 prisoners currently in solitary or “restrictive housing” in the US – to work for between 2-20 cents an hour, for a minimum of 40 hours a week. The paradigm of slavery.
Sumell is optimistic this system will, one day, correct itself and Wallace will be released. Bhalla is not so sure.
For Wallace, the act of protesting, of fighting his corner against overwhelming odds, is just as important as the outcome. Just as important as his freedom. Bhalla is certain of this.
Whether he is released or not, innocent or guilty, Herman Wallace is a shameful reminder of the acute violation of basic human rights solitary confinement represents. Much more than this, however, he symbioses benevolence against malice, hope in the face of sickening adversity and a triumph of the human spirit in the most inhuman of circumstances.
Text by Gary Evans