Herman Wallace was one of the longest-serving prisoners in solitary confinement in the United States—having spent more than 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell in Louisiana. Imprisoned in 1967 for a robbery he admits, he was subsequently sentenced to life for a killing he vehemently denies. Herman’s House is a feature documentary that follows the unlikely friendship between Herman Wallace and artist Jackie Sumell as they collaborate on an acclaimed art project exploring issues of home, justice and punishment in the United States.
Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating inmates in closed cells that measure, on average, 6 x 9 feet, for 22 to 24 hours a day. Meals generally come through slots in the solid steel doors, as does any communication with prison staff. Individuals in solitary confinement may be denied visits, telephone calls, television, reading materials, and art supplies. According to Solitary Watch, solitary confinement has become a control strategy of the first resort in many prisons, in which individuals can be placed in complete isolation for non-violent acts including ignoring orders, using profanity, participating in a work stoppage, or seeking to challenge prison conditions.
Before his passing on October 4, 2013, Herman Wallace, 71, was one of the longest-serving prisoners in solitary confinement in the United States—having spent more than 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the country. The prison farm, previously a plantation called ‘Angola’ named after the home country from where the slaves were brought, was once known as the “bloodiest prison in America.”
In 1971, Herman Wallace, along with Albert Woodfox and Robert King, established the Angola Chapter of the Black Panther Party, the first prison chapter organizing to improve conditions on the inside. In 1972, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted for the murder of a prison guard, and King for another murder, landing all three in solitary confinement despite lack of evidence connecting them to the crimes. Claiming unjust prosecution for their attempt to improve prison conditions, the three men would come to be known as the political prisoners ‘Angola 3.’
Human Rights Watch estimates that approximately 20,000 prisoners are held in Supermax prisons, which are facilities dedicated to solitary confinement or near- solitary, and that at least 80,000 men, women and even children are being held in solitary confinement on any given day in US jails and prisons. A 2011 New York Bar Association study suggested that Supermax prisons constitute “torture under international law” and “cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution.” Globally, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners- accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners while making up less than five percent of the world’s population.