Tag Archives: jackie sumell

cap·tive: part two


photo from nola.com

photo from nola.com




cap·tive  (kap’tiv) n.  [L. captivus  <  captus, pp. of capere, to take; cf. CAITIFF],  1.  a person held in confinement or subjection; prisoner.  2.  a person who is captivated.  adj.  1.  taken or held prisoner  2.  captivated  3.  of captives or captivity.


Today, Herman Wallace died.


I wrote about Wallace last month. He is a man who spent forty-one years in solitary confinement after being convicted of the murder of a prison guard. He and fellow inmate Alfred Woodfox, the other man convicted, have maintained their innocence these four decades. They were originally convicted for armed robbery in 1971. When they entered Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, the two started a Black Panther chapter in order to work for equity for black inmates and to encourage reform of a prison that allowed, and seemed to encourage, brutal violence and rape. The men believe starting the chapter led to their conviction. According to Wallace’s counsel, there was a bloodied fingerprint found at the crime scene that belonged to neither man. The prison guard’s widow does not believe the two men are guilty.


Wallace was freed on Tuesday. Even that was a battle. Petitions began for his release back in June, when he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. On Tuesday, Federal Judge Brian A. Jackson of the Middle District Court of Louisiana overturned his conviction, saying Wallace’s jury was “improperly chosen in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of ‘equal protection of the laws.’” Women had been excluded from the grand jury. Still, the state tried to keep him, quickly appealing the ruling. Judge Jackson again ordered his release, saying a failure to release would “result in a judgment of contempt.” An ambulance took him from Angola straight to a hospital in New Orleans, where supporters gathered to welcome him home. He died in his sleep at a friend’s home this morning.


Jackie Sumell, the artist and friend Wallace collaborated with on Herman’s House, said, “If he dies a free man, we have won.” And I believe this to be true, but I also know that nothing can be done to reconcile those forty years in a six by nine cell. Nothing can be done to reconcile a life that could have been so much more, a life that we, all of us, set limitations on by virtue of our flawed system. Nothing can be done to reconcile the thousands of others who have spent years in solitary, their lives forgotten because they were and are hidden from view. What makes Herman’s case stand out is that a larger audience knows about him because of people on the outside. Wallace, Woodfox, and Robert King (convicted of a separate crime and held in solitary for twenty-nine years), were dubbed the Angola Three after a young law student discovered their case in 1997 and realized the men were still in solitary after more than two decades. The artist Jackie Sumell, upon learning of Herman’s case in 2002, started a correspondence with Wallace which led to a collaborative art project which led to a documentary film. But what about all the other Hermans?


One tragic aspect of the way we punish people in this country is how we tuck them out of sight. We act as if because they have broken a law, their lives no longer matter. The most tragic part, though, is that we are either unable or unwilling to see that, in different circumstances, they could easily be us. We are all capable of rage, of violence, of error. We are all trying to get by in a world that is full of suffering, but we do not all have the same footing, the same privileges, or the same opportunities. Nelson Mandela said, “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”


It is convenient for us to hide away the people that remind us of our own capacity for darkness. If we don’t have to look at them, we don’t have to look at ourselves.


Our unwillingness to view prisoners as people creates a safe cave for us. A cave where we can blame others for all the world’s ills, a cave where we can protect ourselves and our families from those that would harm us, a cave where we can live our lives without fear, a cave where we can deny our own failures and violences. But the cave isn’t really protecting us. It is another kind of cage. The cave cages us because deep down we know that stories we tell to protect ourselves have holes. We know that each of us has the capacity for great brightness and the capacity for dark. If we could acknowledge our own shadow selves, maybe then we could really open to those around us. Maybe then, we could create a system that sees the gray area between black and white. Maybe then, we can approach one another from a place of compassion.


Many people have said that the way we treat others predicts who they will become. Researcher and storyteller Brene Brown has said, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”


We need to reform our criminal justice system in this country. We need it for the people who have been wrongly convicted. We need it for the ones who have committed crimes. We need it for those of us who have never been sitting there waiting for a judge or jury to decide on our fate. Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” We have choice about the kind of society we want to be.

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All photos courtesy of http://hermanshouse.org

All photos courtesy of http://hermanshouse.org











Day 2: I’m realizing that one of the challenges of the 30 days, 30 words challenge is being okay with letting go of a piece once I have written it. Usually, I have a week to let the ideas simmer and to come back to drafts so writing a draft the same day and then putting it up is a challenge for sure. This is especially true when I feel I have so much to say and am trying to figure out the right way to do it. It’s an exercise in non-attachment, I guess. Or at least being less attached to what I am writing in this particular iteration on this particular day.



cap·tive  (kap’tiv) n.  [L. captivus  <  captus, pp. of capere, to take; cf. CAITIFF],  1.  a person held in confinement or subjection; prisoner.  2.  a person who is captivated.  adj.  1.  taken or held prisoner  2.  captivated  3.  of captives or captivity.




Of Captives or Captivity



Herman Joshua Wallace participated in a project several years ago where he worked with a visual artist to design a house. I imagine that the process was not much different than when most people work with designers and architects to design homes. He described in detail what he wanted his house to look like, how many stories it would be, what features the room swould have. He talked about the landscaping and the outdoor pool. But there was one major difference. Herman Wallace was designing a house he would likely never live in. He designed his house from the confines of a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell in Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana.

Angola is an 18,000 acre former slave plantation which takes its name from the country most of the slaves who worked the land traveled from. Able-bodied prisoners, 78 percent of whom are black, are required to work for four to twenty cents an hour a minimum of forty hours a week: working the fields of sugar cane, soybeans, cotton, and corn or looking after the 1,500 cattle herd.

Herman Wallace has been in solitary confinement for 41 years. Solitary confinement at Angola State Penitentiary means a minimum of 23 hours a day in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell, 7 days a week. For 41 years. The last time he was a free man the Vietnam War was in full swing; Richard Nixon was planting the secret taping system that would blow up in Watergate; Ben Hur played on television; Radio Hanoi broadcast Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner”; Tom Jones and Barbra Streisand had hits on the radio; a first class postage stamp went from six to eight cents; Ed Sullivan hosted his final broadcast; Walt Disney World opened in Orlando; the U.S. performed nuclear tests at the Nevada test site; and Don Mclean’s eight-minute song “American Pie” was released.

Wallace had been convicted of armed robbery in 1971. That same year, in prison, he and three other inmates: Ronald Ailsworth, Albert Woodfox, and Gerald Bryant established the Angola Chapter of the Black Panther Party. The goal of the chapter was to improve prison conditions, and chapter members spoke out against unjust treatment and racial segregation in prisons, which many believe made them targets to the administration.

In 1972, prison guard Brent Miller was brutally murdered at Angola, and in 1974, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted of this murder despite there being no physical evidence to link them to the scene of the crime. The victim’s widow does not believe in their guilt. Wallace and Woodfox have fought their convictions since, claiming  one eyewitness was legally blind and another witness, rewarded for his testimony, was known for being a prison snitch. Known as the Angola 3, Wallace, Woodfox, and Robert King (who was accused of another separate prison murder) were put in solitary. King was released in 2001 after 29 years when his case was overturned. Wallace and Woodfox have been in solitary for 41 years.

Visual artist Jackie Sumell first wrote Wallace in 2002 when she heard of his case. She was a graduate student at Stanford University and was given an assignment: “to speak with the professor of my choice about spatial relationships and indulgent dream homes.” Sumell writes in The House That Herman Built, “I struggled to balance the futility of this assignment with the reality of Herman’s condition. So, with the support of Herman’s lawyer and his personal advocate, I asked Herman Wallace a very simple question: “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?”

For the next five years, through extensive letter writing and occasional phone calls, Herman and Jackie worked collaboratively to design that house. She asked questions and he answered them in words and drawings. The letters are also a document of Herman’s emotional condition as they range in time from when he was in Camp J (the harshest camp nicknamed “The Dungeon” by inmates) and back in regular solitary (or Closed Cell Restriction, CCR).

In one of the letters, Wallace writes: “I don’t have the measurement of the cell but here is the best way to do this. In width when I outstretched my arms I can touch both walls with about 3 inches to spare. Lengthwise, I got this much: … That would be one arm, body, body 2 arms. Its best to make your measurement this way because now you could built it according to the person who would have to live in it. Let me know if I’m making sense or not. The above is where I live, the worst unit and cell in the prison. Yesterday one man next door to me tried to take his own life. They took him off 4-point restraint this morning and I’ve been talking to him to help him relax. Security lied on him and got him knocked down to level 2, forcing him to do 6 more months back here and he just snapped–so sad.”

The design of the house bears the mark of someone who has spent the majority of their life in a confined space without access to air, to light, to outside. Flowers and plants are ever present on the grounds and also in the greenhouse (“I’ve attempted many times to grow plants in my prison cell, but would only gain a stem and the plant would soon die. I learnt that concrete walls and steel bars stifle growth which is why it is so necessary this house be made of wood.”). There is attention to detail in the colors used and the types of wood. One bathroom features a 6’9” bathtub– “the exact size of the cell I lived in for 26 years.” The design also reflects a sense of isolation and enclosure and anxiety about outside dangers. “The wrap around porch was not constructed for the purpose of beauty but rather to discourage stray animals from getting too close.” “The chimney connected to the house is really an escape tunnel….this escape tunnel leads beneath the patio to the swimming pool…beneath the bottom of the pool’s concrete for is the bunker for safety measures. If attacked, seriously under attack, the house can be set afire to with more than enough time for you and your family to escape unharmed.”

The project was first done as an interactive art piece. Herman’s cell was reconstructed. Letters he and Jackie exchanged were hung and an animated tour of the house, much like a video game, played on a television screen with Herman speaking about different features of the house. In July 2013, a documentary based on the project, Herman’s House, was released. Efforts are underway for the physical house to be built. Herman said, “Whether I live in the house or not, it makes no difference. The symbol of the house is what it’s about.”

In June 2013, announcements came out that Wallace has been diagnosed with liver cancer. Petitions called for his release. But Angola Warden Burl Cain stated in a deposition that “Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace is locked in time with that Black Panther revolutionary actions they were doing way back when.” He said that, if released out of solitary, “I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them.” One of Wallace’s lawyers Nick Trenticosta told Mother Jones magazine:  “The level of inhumanity I am not used to. I am used to bloodthirsty prosecutors who want to kill people, but not this sort of thing.” Wallace will likely die in captivity. Not only in captivity but in solitary.

Wallace and Woodfox may have some of the longest time served in solitary but they are not alone. Based on available data, on any given day, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons. According to the American Friends Service Committee, the average term served in supermax prisons is five years. In the federal system, Thomas Silverstein has been held in solitary confinement under a “no human contact” order for 28 years.

In solitary at Angola, inmates can use their one hour a day to shower or walk down the hall of the cell block. They have the option three days a week to exercise alone in a fenced yard. Wallace and Woodfox’s lawyers argued in civil suit about the physical, emotional, and mental injuries suffered from their long time duration. Medical reports reveal the men “suffer from arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression.”

This summer, Netflix launched an original series called Orange is the New Black. Some have lauded the show for its diversity of women: race, class, sexuality, body shape, while others have said that the show kowtows to stereotypes about different kinds of people and about prison. Having watched half of the season, I witnessed the refusal to deny any of the prisoners dignity and a series of storylines that reveal inmates as complex, beautiful and flawed characters. As someone who is concerned about prison issues and who has taught writing workshops with incarcerated individuals, I am grateful that, for once, prison is in the limelight. Prisoners are getting attention in pop culture and in a way that doesn’t immediately dismiss them as evil or irrevocably damaged and deserving of bad treatment.On the show, one thing all of the women inmates speak of with dread is the SHU (Security Housing Unit), or solitary. There is a shared understanding that noone who goes to the SHU comes back the same.

I cannot even imagine what it would be like to be confined to such close quarters for so long. What it would be like to not have anyone to talk to. What it would be like to be able to reach out and touch the walls on either side.

To be held captive can have positive connotations: to be engaged, to be rapt.

But far more often, it has the connotation of powerlessness, an inability to get out: whether that be out of an enemy’s hands, out of a particular situation, out of our own thoughts, out of a jail cell.

And captivity, on the behalf of the captors, shows kind of denial. It is a denial of the wholeness and the dignity and the largess of spirit of those who are held captive. And it is an arrogance that we have any right to put them in a cage and throw away the key. I know the reason prisons and jails and juvenile detention centers aren’t talked about in presidential debates. Because prison isn’t popular. Because we would like to pretend that the human beings held in these spaces we have made are different than you and I, that they have somehow forfeited their right to any decency or care because of crimes they committed (or, in some cases, didn’t commit). But to pretend this is to hold ourselves captive: in the belief that there are some among of us that are chosen or safe or saved and others that aren’t; in the belief that people are fixed and unchangeable, that the way we are is the way we are; in the belief that only some of us are worthy of redemption; in the belief that we can commit atrocities to one another, deny the humanity of one another and not personally suffer.

Wallace said of his house, “[This project] helps me to maintain what little sanity I have left, to maintain my humanity and dignity.”

May we all remember the humanity and dignity of one another. And may we challenge one another whenever we try to hold each other in spaces too cramped for our bodies or for our deeper truths.


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