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Artist continues the legacy of Herman Wallace

The Angola 3 refers to three men convicted of murdering a prison guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary more than 40 years ago, in 1972. Robert King, Herman Wallace, and Albert Woodfox were accused of the crime and then held mostly in solitary confinement for decades.

King’s conviction was overturned in 2001. This month, a federal judge released Herman Wallace, ruling that he had not received a fair trial. He died three days later in New Orleans from liver cancer. Now only one member of the Angola 3 remains in jail, Albert Woodfox. A number of activists and organizers are working to free Woodfox and use the  story of the Angola 3 to combat long-term solitary confinement in prisons.

<--break->Jackie Sumell is a New Orleans artist, activist, and supporter of the Angola 3. She has spent the past 12 years corresponding with two of them. She spoke at Wallace’s funeral, held at the Treme Center on October 12, 2013.

In 2003, she asked Wallace a question: What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6-by-9-foot box for over 30 years dream of? His answers inspired "The House That Herman Built," a collaborative artistic and virtual rendering of everything he dreamed about in a home. The project also spawned a film, "Herman's House."

The unlikely relationship between the artist and the Angola 3 began when Sumell was a graduate student in California. At the time, she didn't know anything about the Angola 3, solitary confinement, or Louisiana. She attended a lecture by King purely because she had a crush on the organizer of the event. On the way there on her bike, she recalls, she was cut off by a big SUV. 

" I remember getting off my bicycle and I was screaming profanities and I was so angry," Sumell says. "And then I went in to this lecture and I had no idea what it was going to be about. This man sat in front of me who had just spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a crime he didn’t commit, and he had no visible anger. And I was like, I have something to learn from him. And when I did ask him what I could do, he said write my comrades."

And so Sumell began writing to Wallace and Woodfox.

From their letters, Sumell learned the Angola 3's side of the story. King, Wallace, and Woodfox had each been arrested for armed robbery. While they were serving time, they organized the first chapter of the Black Panther party inside an American prison, and advocated to restructure the prison. The three men were accused and convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1972, and each placed in what Angola calls "closed-cell restriction" and Sumell and most others consider solitary confinement. Sumell and others believe the murder accusation to be false, a result of the Angola 3's activism. James "Buddy" Caldwell, Attorney General of Louisiana, however, stands by the conviction.

In Angola, La., "closed-cell restriction" takes place in a 6-by 9-foot cell, for a minimum of 23 hours a day.

"Those cells are lined up like dog pens, so they’re next to each other, so it is possible to hear other people," says Jackie. "And one of the things that Albert Woodfox said he desired first when he was free, was quiet -- he wanted quietness. It’s actually very loud in that environment."

Jackie Sumell

Jackie Sumell

Jackie has a taped-off section of her studio floor in the 7th Ward. It’s the measurement of a solitary cell, like the one where Herman Wallace and others were held. It looks about the size of a parking space for your car.

Attorney General Caldwell denies that prisoners are actually placed in solitary confinement, saying they are held in "protective cell units known as CCR." But, according to Sumell, that's a matter of semantics.

"Sometimes it’s called the hole, you have the shoe, you have all these different names for solitary confinement," she says, "and so, in creating this comprehensive legislation that will end solitary confinement, one of the biggest challenges is actually identifying what it is."

Caldwell has appealed the federal court’s overturning of Woodfox’s case three times. But Sumell feels confident that, because two of the three convictions have been overturned by the courts, it will help free Woodfox, the last Angola 3 member in prison.

At a second line held on October 20, 2013, to remember Wallace, King was clear that he’s not simply fighting for the release of his comrade. It’s about ending the practice of solitary confinement, he says.

"We think Albert is near, his release is near. If not, we’ll keep on, if Albert isn’t freed; but we’re sure he will be. The efforts will be continued for others who are in the same position as Albert, but haven’t had the same forum that we’ve had to hear their cases."

The practice is under scrutiny. After a series of violent acts by prisoners in solitary confinement, Mississippi decreased the number of prisoners in solitary by 75 percent. California, Ohio and Maine are considering an end to long-term solitary confinement, following prisoner hunger strikes.

"Psychological studies have shown that after 12 days of solitary confinement, the psychological damage is irreparable," Sumell says. "And 70 percent of those folks that are incarcerated right now will be released for some period of time, so you can imagine if a high percentage of those are in solitary confinement, they’re going straight from the damage of solitary back into our community, back into our world.

"Herman was very clear about his wishes, and his legacy is that no man, woman or child should ever be forced to endure the conditions of long-term solitary confinement. And so his life and death have been dedicated to ensuring that."

Sumell will be speaking at the Louisiana Justice Commission Hearing at Southern University on November 2. To learn more, visit HermansHouse.org.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer at WWNO, The Moth and Listening Post and cofounder of Bring Your Own.