Watching Herman's House

Michael B. Mushlin

Michael B. MushlinThis powerful film tells the story of Herman Wallace, who has withstood four decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana with dignity, humanity and heroism, and beautifully depicts his moving relationship with Jackie Sumell. But there is another way in which Wallace is not alone: from one end of America to the other, more than 80,000 others are currently held every day in solitary confinement, making our country the world's leader in the use of this oppressive system.

I first confronted conditions in solitary confinement units more than 30 years ago when I served as trial counsel in a federal civil rights case involving Unit 14, the solitary confinement unit in upstate New York close to the Canadian border. What I saw there was deeply disturbing. As discussed in the 1977 case Frazier v. Ward, for 23 hours each day, inmates were locked in small windowless cages; this went on for months and years on end. No programs or activities were provided to the inmates. During that one precious hour per day when a Unit 14 inmate could leave his cell, there was only one place to go: a small space directly behind his cell called a "tiger cage." The tiger cage was a small, empty space with a barren floor surrounded on all sides by high concrete walls that were not topped by a roof. An inmate could walk only a few steps in one direction before turning. If he looked up, he could glimpse a bit of the sky, but nothing else of the outside world.

I will never forget looking into the eyes of those inmates, who were struggling to maintain a foothold on reality and sanity. Since then, when visiting other solitary confinement units, no matter where, I see that same pained, desperate stare. I have seen it so often and in so many different places that I have come to recognize it instantly as the gaze of a tortured person. Solitary units provide fertile soil for mistreatment and abuse of prisoners. Where but in a fictionalized horror story would one learn of places where "bodies are smeared with one's own excrement; arms are mutilated; suicides attempted and some completed; objects inserted in the penis; stitches repeatedly ripped from recent surgery; a shoulder partly eaten away"? That's one piece of testimony given before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee in 2012.

Massive numbers of people--many of whom are mentally ill, young or deemed too dangerous or vulnerable to be placed in the general prison population, even though they have not violated any prison rules--have been placed into solitary confinement. Even teenagers have been thrown into solitary. Not long ago I was shocked to read a U.S. Justice Department report describing how children 16 years old were being held for as long as one full year in solitary in an adult jail in Westchester County, New York, a mile or two from my office on the campus of Pace Law School.

This does not have to be. America can operate a safe and humane prison system without such widespread use of prolonged isolation. We, the people, are responsible for our prisons and what happens in them. When the public sends the message to stop the widespread use of isolation, America's solitary cell doors will open and we will have a prison system more worthy of our nation--one that no longer hides men and women suffering silently and unnecessarily in those dark, oppressive solitary confinement cells. This film advances the coming of that bright day.

Michael B. Mushlin is a professor at Pace Law School. He was project director of the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, is vice chair of the Correctional Association of New York and is the author of Rights of Prisoners, a four-volume legal text.