A House Built on Hope
November 9, 2008 7:10 PM   Subscribe

In 1972, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were convicted of murdering a prison guard in Louisiana's notorious maximum-security prison, Angola. The warden sentenced them to solitary confinement, where they remained for the next 36 years. Until March 2008, the men had spent at least 23 hours per day in cells that measured only 6 x 9 feet. Woodfox's conviction was recently overturned, evidently through a federal habeus proceeding, and he is awaiting a new trial. NPR did an outstanding job of tracking down people involved and telling a riveting story: Part I, Part II, Part III. No doubt that much of the attention brought to the case is due to the efforts of Jackie Sumell and her Herman's House project.

Jackie learned about Herman Wallace in 2001 after she heard a former Angola inmate speak in San Francisco. From her project site:
After about eight months of organizing on behalf of Herman and Albert, as a graduate studentat Stanford University, Miss Sumell was given an assignment which required her to speak with the professor of choice about spatial relationships and indulgent dream homes. Struggling to balance the futility of this assignment with the reality of Herman’s condition, (with the support of both Herman’s lawyer and his personal advocate), she asked Herman Wallace a very simple question: "What kind of a house doesa man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?" The answer to this question resulted in an extraordinary and ongoing journey. Since 2003, through extensive letter writing, phone calls, and dozens of visits to the prison, Jackie has been translating Herman’s imagination.
She and Herman's work is a primary exhibit in Prospect.1 New Orleans [P.1], the largest biennial of international contemporary art ever organized in the United States. No doubt that Sumell's work has given Wallace even more hope for his future. You can help see that the house is built.
posted by ajr (8 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I have been riveted listening to this on NPR. Thanks for all the supporting links, and bringing this amazing story to MeFi.
posted by gemmy at 7:44 PM on November 9, 2008

I was speechless when I read that the guards are actually called "Freemen," and it only got worse from there on in.
posted by HopperFan at 8:14 PM on November 9, 2008

In this part of Angola, there's not really anything that connotes maximum-security prison — except for the inmates. All day long, men in white uniforms are cutting grass, painting houses, planting gardens, free of cost to the prison staff. It's a tradition at this historically black prison run largely by white officers.

While most inmates are sent to the fields to work, these jobs go to those who are considered the best-behaved.

Inmate Ricky Hawthorne apparently fit the officer's bill. He meticulously waters a bed of marigolds for the third time today.

"They brought these over here and told me to just keep them watered and they would grow and they would be beautiful," he says, answering every question with a snappy "yassuh" the way all the inmates here seem to do.

Down the road, a group of inmates are sitting under a tent waiting to wash officers' cars. The wardens and deputy wardens have what they call "House Boys" — inmates who cook for their families and clean their homes. When there's a chore to do, officers just pull an inmate from the prison camps.

posted by flotson at 8:25 PM on November 9, 2008

I heard part of this on NPR last week. What I was most struck by was how they used the LA prison system to recreate the glory days of 19th century slavery--like the Disneyland or Silver Dollar City of plantations.

Sick. Must be a dream for the wardens and officers.
posted by sourwookie at 8:43 PM on November 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

How is it a warden rather than a judge has the authority to impose sentencing of this unusual nature anyway? Is sentencing a citizen to "solitary confinement for life" even an option for the judiciary?
posted by scheptech at 8:44 PM on November 9, 2008

Seriously, after hearing things like this, how can we consider any of the convictions that occurred in that place as valid? We as a country should force a new trial for everyone in that place, and split the bill up among every resident of whatever voting block controls that little racist hell, as a means of smacking them upside the head and making them care about what lives they destroy.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:45 PM on November 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

@scheptech, I took some liberty by saying the warden sentenced them to solitary confinement. They were sentenced to prison by the judge/jury, but it is the warden who determines the conditions of their confinement. The article makes clear that the wardens over the last 36 years signed new solitary confinement orders for Wallace and Woodfox every 90 days.

Regarding the comments on race, there is certainly need for improvement in Angola and Louisiana (like most places). To be fair though, Angola has taken great strides over the last few decades and the place is a relatively safe prison--at least as I understand it. The race angle is more nuanced than the slave/plantation model comments warrant, as evidenced by the fact that the slain guard's wife now questions the convictions.

The post is intended to highlight the tragic story of these men and the work of Sumrell (and others) to help them.
posted by ajr at 9:02 PM on November 9, 2008

Someone smart said (Orwell?) "If you want to take the measure of a country, look at its prisons and hospitals."
posted by MarshallPoe at 7:39 AM on November 10, 2008

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