Herman Wallace’s world for much of the last 41 years had been a solitary prison cell, 6 feet by 9 feet, when he left a Louisiana prison on October 1. Wallace was freed by Chief Judge Brian A. Jackson of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana who ruled that his original indictment in the killing of a prison guard had been unconstitutional. Wallace was moved from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, LA by ambulance to the home of a friend and supporter, Ashley Wennerstrom, a program director at the Tulane University School of Medicine. Three days later, on October 4, Wallace died of cancer in New Orleans. He was 71.
Wallace had been one of the “Angola 3,” convicts whose solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, an 18,000-acre prison farm on the site of a former plantation, became a rallying point for advocates fighting abusive prison conditions around the world.
He was serving a prison sentence for armed robbery when the correctional officer, Brent Miller, was stabbed to death in a riot at Angola in April 1972. Mr. Wallace and two other men were indicted in the killing. Two of the three — Albert Woodfox and Mr. Wallace — were convicted in January 1974.
The two were placed in solitary confinement, where they joined Robert King, who had been convicted of a different crime. For decades to follow, the three men were locked up for as much as 23 hours a day. Amnesty International published a report on them in 2011, and they were the subject of a documentary film, “In the Land of the Free,” directed by Vadim Jean.
In the film, Teenie Verret, the widow of Brent Miller, said of the killing, “If they did not do this — and I believe that they didn’t — they have been living a nightmare.”
George Kendall, who was a lawyer for Mr. Wallace and who confirmed the death, said in an interview that his client’s original conviction was “a travesty” based on shoddy evidence, and that the men had been kept in solitary confinement because they had been members of the Black Panthers, the black nationalist group. Officials worried “that they would organize the prison,” he said.
Even from solitary, Mr. Wallace worked to improve prison conditions and to press his own appeals, Mr. Kendall said. He answered mail from people who had heard about his case.
Then in 2001 Herman received a perspective shifting letter from Jackie Sumell, a young New York artist, who posed the following provocative question:
What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?
Thus began an inspired creative dialogue, unfolding over hundreds of letters and phone calls and yielding a multi-faceted collaborative project that includes the exhibition “The House That Herman Built.” The revelatory art installation—featuring a full-scale wooden model of Herman’s cell and detailed plans of his dream home—has brought thousands of gallery visitors around the world face-to-face with the harsh realities of the American prison system.
There are 2.2 million people in jail in the U.S. More than 80,000 of those are in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace had been there longer than anyone.
Herman’s House is a moving account of Wallace’s unending struggle for freedom and the powerful expression it found in Sumell’s project, which began as a game and turned into an interrogation of justice and punishment in America. It is also a testament to the transformative powers of art and imagination.
Sumell was with Wallace after his release. Though Mr. Wallace was weak, drifting in and out of consciousness, Ms. Sumell said, “He was very well aware of the fact that he was in Ashley’s home, and he was a free man.” Indeed, his final words as he departed this Earth were‘I am free. I am free.’
*Robert King was released from prison in 2001; Albert Woodfox is still in prison in Louisiana.
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