|Herman Wallace (left) and Albert Woodfox in Angola prison|
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on two men who have spent 40 years in solitary confinement in Angola prison in Louisiana. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have spent 23 hours of each day in the last 40 years in a 9ft-by-6ft cell. (Read why they are in prison here).
Yesterday, they "celebrated" their their 40th anniversary of solitary confinement. To mark the day, Amnesty International put pressure on the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, to release the two men from solitary by delivering a petition bearing more than 65,000 signatures to the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. AI calls their prolonged solitary incarceration a form of cruel and inhumane treatment that is banned under both the US constitution and international law.
"I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door," Herman Wallace said 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."
I cannot begin to imagine how one can survive under these circumstances, so was very interested to find out in a Guardian article by Ed Pilkington yesterday about a new documentary that takes us inside that cell. The documentary, Herman's House, based on recorded conversations between Wallace and independent film-maker Angad Bhalla, tells us how it feels to live that way and what it does to you.
The film also describes the relationship between Wallace and a young artist called Jackie Sumell. The American artist was so outraged by his story that she decided to help him imaginatively escape from solitary confinement by having him design his perfect house. In 2003, she asked Herman a very simple question: "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6' x 9' box for over 30 years dream of?"
"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."
This extraordinary collaboration between Wallace and Sumell (called the House That Herman Built) has gained international recognition through its exhibition, corresponding book and now soon the documentary. "The House That Herman Built" is a testament to the human imagination, an illustration of kindness, an art project, and an introduction to history that highlights institutionalized racism in the United States," states Sumell's website. "Ultimately, Herman's House is a monument to resilience, courage, creativity and magnanimity."