'Herman's House': The Dreams of a Man in Solitary Confinement for 40 Years

Monday, July 08, 2013

A view of Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary A view of Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary (inthelandofthefreefilm.com)

Artist Jackie Sumell first heard about Herman Wallace at a lecture on solitary confinement. She was outraged to learn that Wallace, a Louisiana state prisoner, has lived in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for more than 40 years now. He is believed to be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States.

A new PBS Point of View documentary, "Herman's House," follows the unlikely and enduring friendship that arose between the two after Jackie wrote to him in prison.

According to PBS, Wallace "went to jail in 1967 at age 25 for a robbery he admits committing. In 1972, he was accused of the murder of a prison guard, a crime he vehemently denies, and placed in solitary confinement in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. Wallace was subsequently convicted and given a life sentence."

“Shortly after I started writing Herman, he went into this cell, which is the dungeon, which is a lot more punitive," says Jackie. "It was during that time that I started to see him dilapidate and to suffer, and so I knew that. I'm not a lawyer and I'm not rich, you know, and I'm not powerful, but I'm an artist and I knew that the only way I could get him out of prison was to get him to dream.”

She asked Herman to describe in detail his dream house and vowed to create it.

Filmmaker Angad Bhalla follows Jackie as she raises awareness of long-term solitary confinement through art exhibitions featuring models of Herman's solitary cell and his dream house, and then as she struggles to make Herman's dream house a reality in the form of a community center in his hometown of New Orleans.

"Herman's House" premiers tonight on PBS. Bhalla and Sumell join The Takeaway to discuss solitary confinement and their new film.

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Angad Bhalla and Jackie Sumell

Hosted by:

Callie Crossley

Produced by:

Megan Quellhorst and Jillian Weinberger


T.J. Raphael

Comments [11]

M. Almon from Miami

As correctly pointed out by the previous commenter, my comments were made after the radio segment. I did not see the documentary. If this man killed a prison guard, and was convicted of the killing, he cannot be let loose in any prison- EVER. Prison personnel AND the other prisoners have a right to some semblance of security in very violent environments. If he did not kill the guard, maybe the energies should focus on clearing him. With dna and other technological advances we all know that this is possible. I am glad that he was not killed as I am against the death penalty, but to do away with the death penalty we must ensure safe and secure prisons.

If I remember correctly, during the radio show the number of people in solitary confinement was quoted at 88,000. There are 2.3 million people in prison in the U. S. A 3% solitary confinement rate is about what you would expect. The very tail end of the normal curve. These are seriously violent people (Hannibal Lechter types?) who will kill you with a piece of paper if you are not extremely careful.

I think the artist has every right to pursue her viewpoint on this case, and I do not see her as self-promoting, but let's be fair and look at the other side.

Jul. 10 2013 11:47 AM
Peggy Myers from State College, PA

They just threw away Herman Wallace and that is not right.

Jul. 09 2013 12:58 PM
S from brooklyn, ny

M. Almon, and the earlier commenters, including me, were referencing The Takeaway RADIO SHOW, not the documentary itself (as it hadn't aired yet). The radio show made no mention of the original case against Herman. This was the cause for my frustration and disappointment in NPR: very unbalanced reporting. I am hoping for a correction on today's Takeaway...

Jul. 09 2013 11:22 AM
JH from Miami FL

M. Almon of Miami and others must have seen a completely different documentary than I did - or perhaps they only watched a portion of it. As the film explains - the "reason WHY this man is in solitary confinement" as M. Almon asks, is because the so called review board of Angola stamped the same form every 90 days for over 40 years saying it was "for the reason he was originally incarcerated". PERIOD. No other reason given or required at Angola - which is one of the whole points of the film. It is beyond tragic than in the USA we would allow ANYONE to be locked up in solitary for that long. It literally sickens me.

Jul. 09 2013 02:26 AM
jane from Oak Park, Il

It was clear he was in confinement because he was convicted of murdering a guard. The remaining questions are was he innocent of the crime and if the punishment of solitary confinement is humane regardless of the crime. The movie repeatedly brings these questions to the surface.

I didn't get self promotion at all. I got humans actively involved in caring for others and not completely self-involved. These are not common traits in the greed and status culture we live in.

I found the movie inspiring, focusing on unlikely friendships, loyalty and survival in the face of horrible circumstances. It frequently speaks of humanity-our connection to one another. Maybe it is because I'm from Illinois and a review of death row convictions exposed so many wrong convictions and mistakes that the there was a halt put on executions. Do you nay -sayers really believe the system always works? Would you stand at a hanging and cheer?

Jul. 09 2013 12:44 AM
Andrea from Austin,Texas

I am currently watching this documentary and Herman was in prision for committing a bank robbery. A few years after his imprisionment one of the prision guards was murdered and he and another man were accused of committing the murder even though the weapon could not be traced to him. This does appear to be an unfair situation for Herman.

Jul. 08 2013 10:46 PM
Craig Tebeau from Tacoma WA

This story was extremely one sided, and thus lost my respect. I can't see how you can tell this story without any mention of the other side of it. As if there is no one being tortured because of Herman's murder that he was convicted of? I agree that this type of punishment is torture and is so unnecessary. It is a waste of taxpayer's money and is way too easy of a life for this piece of garbage. I wonder how the murdered person's family feels about how much effort is being put into helping Herman. The artist and activists are only in this for their own self-promotion. That much is obvious.

Herman's house would be a 6x2 foot pine box if it were my family member he murdered. Every day he is above ground is a day he doesn't deserve.

RIP Herman's Murder Victim
and their family

So sorry no one is going to have an art exhibit for you.

feel to have your father go for an honest days work, and have him killed by someone who has no respect for any of the rest of us

Jul. 08 2013 05:41 PM
Tami from Bellingham, WA

Re: the comments made above. Before you form an opinion, read the links to the story. This is actually a case that has been covered by Amnesty International.


Jul. 08 2013 05:16 PM
kevin from Bay Area

I defend NPR to conservative friends, but then you get a story like this and it makes me shake my head. The guests call the punishment torture without ever even saying WHY he's receiving this punishment. As if he's some political prisoner in North Korea.

It's doubly embarrassing as this show has just replace Talk of the Nation in our market. It's hard to imagine Neal Conan whiffing on one like this.

Jul. 08 2013 04:24 PM
S from brooklyn, ny

This story is compelling and tragic. I think I agree solitary confinement is inhumane for anyone, however, did I miss the part where we learned what Herman has done to end up there for 40 years?? I think that is an obvious and very important part of the story. I'm not interested in passing judgement, but from a journalistic standpoint I'm surprised and disappointed by The Takeaway for not asking the uncomfortable questions.

Jul. 08 2013 04:07 PM
M. Almon from Miami, FL

My takeaway today is a reminder of why I do not give NPR one cent. I love the cultural contributions, but on social and political issues the bias is shameful. So many of the stories are so one-sided. Take the Herman case. At no point is there any information as to WHY this man is in solitary confinement. Yes, it is an awful thing, but there are people who are so dangerous and unpredictable (even if they do talk about tulips) that they must be isolated. As a federal parole officer for many years I know first-hand that some human beings are capable of anything regardless of age or condition. I remember a runner of illegal guns- the kind NPR says nobody should have, and I agree- who, after becoming a paraplegic in an accident, continued to run guns by conspiring with his caregiver, communicating by blinking. Most people would be shocked that this man had to be incarcerated. Please run a follow-up and say why Herman is being treated the way he is- maybe he is being wronged, but maybe not.

I wish NPR would act more like a legitimate media organization and publish balanced stories!

Jul. 08 2013 04:04 PM

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