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The Legacy Of Herman Wallace, And The Movement To End Long-Term Solitary Confinement

The Angola 3refers 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, and this month a federal judge released Herman Wallace, saying he did not receive a fair trial. Wallace died three days later in New Orleans from liver cancer.

Now Albert Woodfox is the last member of the Angola 3 still in jail, and many activists and organizers are working to free him and use the  story of the Angola 3 to combat long-term solitary confinement in prisons.

Jackie Sumellis an artist, activist and supporter of the Angola 3, and was one of the speakers at Herman Wallace’s funeral held at the Tremé Center on October 12, 2013.

Jackie was tight with Herman Wallace; she’s spent the past twelve years corresponding with the Angola 3. It started when she was a grad student in California — before she knew anything about the Angola 3, solitary confinement, or Louisiana. She attended a lecture by Robert King purely due to the fact that she had a crush on the organizer of the event, and on the way got cut off by a big SUV.

"I remember getting off my bicycle and I was screaming profanities and I was so angry," Jackie 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 Jackie began writing to Herman and Albert.

Writing back and forth with the men, Jackie learned their side of the story. Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox had each been arrested for armed robbery, but while they were serving time they organized the first chapter of the Black Panther party inside an American prison, advocating to restructure the prison. Jackie and others believe their activism led these men to be falsely accused of the murder of a prison guard in 1972, and then placed in solitary confinement.

In the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, solitary confinement — or "closed cell restriction" — is a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, where prisoners are kept 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."

Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO
Jackie Sumell.

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

Part of the problem in fighting solitary confinement is that different prisons call it different things. This is important, considering James Buddy Caldwell, Attorney General of Louisiana, says prisoners have been in "protective cell units known as CCR."

According to Jackie, the only difference between CCR and solitary is the name. "Sometimes it’s called the hole, you have the shoe, "ad seg" [administrative segregation] — you have all these different names for solitary confinement, and so in creating this comprehensive legislation that will end solitary confinement one of the biggest challenges is actually identifying what it is."

Caldwell defends the position that these men are guilty of murdering the prison guard, and he’s appealed the federal court’soverturning of Woodfox’s case three times. But Jackie and others feel confident that the now two of out three overturned convictions will help free Albert Woodfox.

But at a second line held on October 20, 2013, to remember Wallace, Robert King was clear that he’s not just fighting for the release of Albert. He says it’s about ending the practice of solitary confinement.

"We think Albert is near, his release is near," King says. "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 of solitary confinement is under scrutiny. After a series of violent acts by prisoners in solitary confinement in Mississippi, the state 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. Jackie Sumell says the practice produces no good results.

"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 ever be forced to endure the conditions of long-term solitary confinement. And so his life and death have been dedicated to ensuring that."

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

Read it on Nolavie.

*Production Assistance by Mallory Falk.