Herman Wallace Dies a Free Man After 41 Years in Solitary Confinement
Imprisoned Black Panther Herman Wallace, one of the Louisiana prison inmates who became known as the Angola Three, died last month a free man. Wallace had become a living symbol of the controversy over solitary confinement in American prisons, having been kept in a cell measuring 6 x 9 feet for twenty-three hours of every day for forty-one years.
The Angola Three were originally confined in isolation for their disputed roles in the 1972 murder of prison guard Brent Miller at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The three men have always maintained their innocence, saying they were targeted for their political activism after they co-founded a chapter of the Black Panther Party at the prison and organized strikes and demonstrations for better conditions.
In our April/May 2011 issue, Afterimage featured an essay by Marc James Léger (“By Any Means Necessary: From the Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas to the Art Activism of Jackie Sumell,” Afterimage 39, no. 5), about The House That Herman Built, an art project that began in 2003 when artist Jackie Sumell wrote Wallace and asked what kind of a house he dreams about after enduring decades of solitary confinement. The project reconstructs Herman Wallace’s ideal house, as he described it in his correspondence with Sumell, and includes a traveling exhibition of architectural models and a video featuring a CAD rendering of the house. In 2012, the project became the subject of a feature documentary, Herman’s House (2013, directed by Angad Singh Bhalla). The project’s ultimate goal is to build the house as a full-scale structure to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and the use of solitary confinement in the United States prison system.
Although the Black Panther Party dissolved as an organization long ago, for Wallace, in his solitude, the idea of it remained significant to the end. Among the prominent features of the house he designed is a large panther emblem at the bottom of the backyard swimming pool, and a dining and conference room with framed portraits of heroes from the Black Liberation Movement.
In June of this year, Wallace was diagnosed with liver cancer, leading Amnesty International and thousands of people internationally to call for his release on humanitarian grounds. Freedom finally came for him on October 1st , after a federal judge ruled his original conviction unconstitutional because of a discriminatory jury. His death followed less than three days later.
The surviving members of the Angola Three are Robert King, who was freed after twenty-nine years in isolation for an alleged link to Miller’s murder that was never followed by a conviction, and James Woodfox, who remains in solitary confinement despite his conviction being overturned by judges three times.
Sergei Krishkov is an editorial intern at Afterimage and a recent graduate of the University of Rochester with a degree in literature and political science.