Watching Herman's House

Colin Dayan

Colin DayanAlongside the death penalty, we have invented a new form of death--a death-in-life that needs no judicial decision and is not open to legal scrutiny. Solitary confinement--prolonged and indefinite--is the punishment of choice in the United States. And we are not against trying out this grim technology of psychic extermination in Guantánamo, too. Such torturous practice is intended to humiliate, to break the spirit, to obliterate the person.

That is what makes Herman's House so moving and instructive. The voice we hear from the outset, telling us, "I can only make about four steps forward before I touch the door," is strong, understated. Herman Wallace has been held alone in a six-by-nine-foot cell for nearly 41 years. Along with Albert Woodfox, he was convicted of killing a correctional officer while serving time for armed robbery at Angola in 1972. These two remaining members of the Angola Three (Richard King was released in 2001) have always declared their innocence and challenged their conviction.

In response to injustice, Wallace dares to dream. To envision the house where he might never live. To "play" Jackie's "game," as he puts it. When he first talks to Jackie Sumell, he is in the "dungeon," under conditions harsher than even "closed cell restriction," the Angola euphemism for solitary confinement. Wallace imagines himself outside the box. The house would have gardens, lots of gardens filled with "gardenias, carnations and tulips." He wants "guests to be able to smile and walk through flowers all year long."

There are moments when the idea of a white New York artist collaborating with a black Louisiana prisoner may seem to evoke the wrong kind of sympathy: a sentiment that can only be felt by the free on behalf of the bound. But this film is fearless in calling for another kind of feeling. Wallace, in conversation with Sumell, gives us the chance to know what it means to feel without sentimentality, to speak about a system of punishment that disproportionately targets African Americans, to consider a form of justice that ignores the cry of the innocent, to know again the legacy of slavery that haunts the present.

Will Herman Wallace's house ever be built? Will it be possible to find land for it in New Orleans, where Wallace was born 70 years ago? The film does not answer these questions, but instead leaves us with the anxiety induced by knowing that even when he is finally free, there may be no place that he can call his own. Perhaps he knows this, as the years pass and Sumell's attempts to buy the land are fruitless. He understands how prejudice against the disenfranchised is made real.

What the Angola Three know--and this is perhaps the danger most feared--is that imprisonment goes hand in hand with familiar racist practices. Fear is a vice that takes root. The realities of stop-and-frisk, racial profiling and summary killing of young blacks have always been part of our history. It is ultimately a race thing. In the 19th century, this country fine-tuned the law of slavery like no other place in the world. And when abolition came, blacks were still shackled by police power.

The prison is now the central public institution in the United States. Though hidden out of sight, it defines our society in profound ways. The issue is not crime. Mechanisms of discrimination against African-American men mark the most concerted effort since Reconstruction to create a class of citizens subordinate to and separate from those outside the prison walls. But ever larger categories of our population can be tarred with the same brush.

Louisiana prison officials refuse to release Wallace and Woodfox, even though the case against them is filled with inconsistencies, perjured witnesses and evidence suppressed or lost. Perhaps the real reason is that in 1971 they founded the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party to fight brutal and degrading treatment and to help prisoners garner strength through reading and talking--what Walter Rodney, the Guyanese historian and activist, called "grounding with my brothers."

The officials of the Louisiana State Penitentiary will not forget that. The threat of resistance is not to be endured. It must be eliminated. But the disease of pride and the fact of survival are hard to wipe out. Wallace cannot be rehabilitated: as Burl Cain, warden of Angola, said, "I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism." Even after all these years, Wallace wants a black panther painted at the bottom of the pool in his dream house.

Colin Dayan's books include The Story of Cruel and Unusual and The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. She is the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches American Studies, comparative literature, and the religious and legal history of the Americas. In 2012 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.