Solitary confinement has existed since the first U.S. prison was built in Pennsylvania, in the late 18th century. But the scale and duration of solitary confinement in the United States in the 21st century is unprecedented. On any given day, roughly 80,000 adult U.S. prisoners are held in solitary confinement. They spend 23 or more hours per day in cells that usually measure six feet by nine feet—smaller than a wheelchair-accessible bathroom stall. They have extremely limited contact with other human beings—phone calls are limited; family visits take place (if at all) behind thick, bulletproof glass; and doctors’ appointments happen through cell doors, or with prisoners locked into telephone-booth sized cages. Prisoners spend not days or weeks, but months and years in these conditions. In California, for instance, the average length of stay in solitary confinement is between two and three years. In states like California and Louisiana, however, some prisoners have spent not years, but decades in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace, who has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana, is one such prisoner. Director Angad Singh Bhalla’s feature film, Herman’s House, humanizes this world of solitary confinement, attaches a story and a face to the thousands of U.S. prisoners serving long sentences in solitary confinement and raises questions about the justice of the individual and collateral experiences of this world.
Herman’s House documents Herman Wallace’s surprising friendship with a young New York artist who was not even born when Wallace first entered solitary confinement. Along the way, the film touches on key moments in Wallace’s legal battles to overturn his criminal sentence and to force Louisiana prison officials to release him, at least from solitary confinement. Like Wallace, prisoners in solitary confinement across the United States are in isolation based on internal, correctional department decisions, not based on external, criminal court decisions. And like Wallace, prisoners across the United States, from Louisiana to California, have brought challenges to both the harsh conditions of their solitary confinement and the extended lengths of their confinement.
Judge Thelton Henderson resolved one of the first such lawsuits (Madrid v. Gomez) in 1995. That case challenged the constitutionality of conditions of confinement at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, which opened in 1989 and was one of the first U.S. “supermax” facilities, as prisons built explicitly to detain people in solitary confinement for indefinitely long periods of time have come to be known. Although Henderson found that certain policies at Pelican Bay violated the U.S. Constitution, he ultimately held that the basic conditions and extended durations of solitary confinement there were, in fact, constitutional. Indeed, no U.S. court has held that the extreme deprivations of solitary confinement are, per se, unconstitutional. And no U.S. court has limited the period of time that a prisoner without pre-existing mental health problems may be kept under these conditions. A new lawsuit, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, seeks to re-open the question of the constitutionality of the conditions and durations of confinement at Pelican Bay. The suit survived the prison system’s motion to dismiss in April, and plaintiffs’ lawyers are preparing to certify a class of a few dozen prisoners who have spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Herman’s House is part of a growing body of artistic, journalistic, scholarly and political works investigating the practice of solitary confinement in the United States. In 2002, Mississippi closed its 1,000-bed supermax prison; researchers documented a decrease in violence and disciplinary infractions throughout the state prison system. In November 2011, following up on a three-week hunger strike at Pelican Bay State Prison in which hundreds participated, Amnesty International visited the facility and wrote a report condemning the use of long-term solitary confinement there. In June 2012, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing about uses of solitary confinement in the United States; as a result, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is investigating the necessity of its own uses of solitary confinement.
Unlike some of those other projects, Herman’s House is one of the rare pieces that eschews a political agenda, existing instead as art. Its images linger in your mind long after you see it. I am thinking in particular of the moment when Wallace’s sister stands at the threshold of a replica of Wallace’s Louisiana cell, the replica built by artist Jackie Sumell. His sister thinks long and hard before walking into the replica cell, leaving the audience to imagine with her, with Sumell and with Wallace how the physical structures that contain us shape not only our identities, but those of our most intimate relations. Like the images in the film, both animated and actual, Wallace’s story lingers, too. Director Bhalla insists that we imagine not just what Wallace’s dream house could be, but what Wallace, and the thousands of others like him, might be outside of the confines of a six-by-nine-foot prison cell.
Keramet Reiter is an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, in the department of criminology, law and society and at its school of law. She is currently working on a book project examining supermax incarceration in the United States.