Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Segregation cells a form of torture

Imagine being isolated in a jail cell smaller than a condominium parking space, 23 hours of the day. Imagine being held there for 41 years. Herman Wallace has lived this reality in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison since 1972.

Imagine being isolated in a jail cell smaller than a condominium parking space, 23 hours of the day. Imagine being held there for 41 years. Herman Wallace has lived this reality in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison since 1972. Astoundingly, he was thrown into "the hole" back when the Jackson 5 were racing up the pop charts and the electronic game Pong was wowing kids in arcades.

Imprisoned in 1967 for bank robbery, Wallace was confined to solitary five years later in the highly questionable murder conviction of a prison guard, with nonmatching

fingerprints and two informants recanting their testimony. The recent PBS documentary Herman's House offers more than a peek into the heart of darkness that is the U.S. prison industrial complex. It is the story of an unlikely collaboration between Wallace and the American activist/artist Jackie Summell. She had little interest in incarceration issues until she attended a talk in San Francisco by a member of the socalled "Angola Three," Robert King, who had been released from 29 years in solitary confinement after his conviction was overturned. Earlier on the day of his talk, the bike-riding Summell got into an altercation with a motorist, and she was impressed by the former prisoner's equanimity. "This man spoke about being in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for 29 years without any indication of anger," she told Mother Jones magazine. "I was like: Oh, shit. I have something to learn from that man. He's been able to channel so much trauma into these constructive mechanisms. Whereas I get cut off on my bicycle on Market Street and I'm ready to throw down."

Intrigued, she got in touch in 2003 with Herman Wallace, one of the two remaining members of the Angola Three. Two years into their correspondence, she entered a master's program in architecture at Stanford. As part of her thesis, she pitched a peculiar question to Wallace: "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot box for over 30 years dream of?" Wallace's lifestyle wish list - '70s-era shag carpets, a wall decorated with portraits of African American revolutionaries, a six by nine-foot hot tub (the size of his cell) - were enshrined in the artist's sketches and computer-aided renderings, and incorporated into an art exhibit that also featured a life-size wooden reconstruction of his cell. "The House That Herman Built" has been shown in 12 galleries in five countries around the world. The contrast between the prisoner's dream home and his shrunken living conditions reportedly left many gallery-goers in tears.

Ten years after their first tentative communications, the collaboration between the prisoner and the artist has grown into an "international exhibition, book, documentary film, social sculpture, educational tool, architectural discourse and awareness campaign now aimed at building the house of a man who has been in solitary confinement for over 41 years.... Herman's dream home will be built in his birth city of New Orleans that will serve as a meeting place for art, activism, love, and community," according to, which is accepting donations for the project.

With the 71-year-old Wallace diagnosed in June with aggressive liver cancer, Summell's struggle for his freedom has become about ensuring he doesn't die in jail. Amnesty International and other groups have joined the cause. "I think that the best activism is equal parts love and equal parts anger," the artist says in the film Herman's House.

Over 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the U.S., in conditions similar to those suffered by Wallace. Even with countries around the world retreating from the practice, our nation's correctional service is aping the American gulag through an increased reliance on "segregation cells."

Sixty-seven nations have ratified the 2002 United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which considers long-term solitary confinement an inhumane practice with long-term health consequences. Canada is not among the signatories. Eight hundred and fifty out of 14,700 inmates in federal institutions are in segregation cells, representing almost six per cent of the Canadian prison population. Call it racism by default or design, but the overrepresentation of African Americans in U.S. solitary is mirrored in the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in Canadian solitary - to say nothing of the two nation's prison populations.

More on this topic next week.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks