America’s longest solitary confined prisoner

“And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes

that hold our brothers in Angola,

In Mozambique,

South Africa

Sub-human bondage

Have been toppled,

Utterly destroyed –

Well, everywhere is war” – Bob Marley’s hit reggae record “WAR” excerpted and inspired by Ethiopian Emperor Haile’s address to the United Nations in 1963.

When Bob Marley, added music to a message Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I delivered to a world body in 1963, the reggae icon imagined the poignant words were aimed at injustice publicly decried on the faraway African continent.

Although the damning message may have resonated as an issue to correct in places such as Mozambique, South Africa and Angola, perhaps not a single diplomat imagined a prison named Angola existed in America and that the emperor’s words could have related to the plight of hundreds of inmates locked away in the Louisiana penitentiary.

Since the release of Marley’s record, Mozambique crowned its first global beauty queen, Apartheid ended in South Africa, and Angola? Well not much is even reported on the nightly news about the country on the continent.

However, in a film entitled “Herman’s House,” America’s Angola seems worthy of attention by member nations who sit in the General Assembly.

One particular story is that of 72-year-old Herman Wallace, America’s longest confined prisoner to a single, solitary cell. Forty years and counting, Wallace has been locked away in Angola. Not the country in Africa Marley described as “dread” but Angola, the notorious prison in Louisiana.

The documentary exposes Wallace’s demise in a film that never reveals an image of the incarcerated inmate.

Neither does Wallace opine about his condition or the suffrage he has endured during the 40 years he has missed out seeing a full day of sunlight.

His larger than life personality is revealed through conversations with his sister and a woman who befriended him through letters she was asked to send in order to keep him sane while being a tragic figure in solitary confinement.

Reportedly, in 1972, the New Orleans native while serving a sentence for bank robbery at the notorious Angola penitentiary became one of the Angola 3, the trio of Black Panther prisoners who spoke out against inhumane conditions and racial injustice there. Reports are that Wallace was accused of murdering a prison guard and thrown into solitary confinement as punishment for his political activities. Since that time appeals have been made to move the incarcerated inmate out of solitary confinement to a general population setting.

Each time the requests have been denied.

Over 2.2 million people are in jail in the United States.

More than 80,000 of that staggering total are in solitary confinement.

Wallace has been there longer than anyone — 40 years and counting.

In the documentary now playing at Cinema Village at 12th St., his story unfolds when in 2001 artist Jackie Summell heard the story of Robert King, one of the released members of The Angola 3. Allegedly, she asked the former inmate what she could do to help the others.

“Write my comrades,” was King’s response.

Summell, a Long Island born artist who was living in California obliged and began her correspondence with the two other inmates. After about eight months of organizing on behalf of the two, the graduate student at Stanford University began to notice that Wallace’s condition was in decline.

His health she said in the film rapidly worsened and as an attempt to offer some relief she asked, “What kind of a house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?”

Her question and the response she was given prompted her to put her talent to the test. She said she was inspired to create that house Wallace dreamed of but probably would never realize. After hundreds of letters and phone calls, Summell mounted a design and later a multi-faceted project produced an exhibition entitled “The House That Herman Built.”

This revelatory art installation, featuring a full-scale model of Herman’s cell and detailed plans of his dream home brought thousands of people around the world face-to-face with the harsh realities of America’s prison system.

The exhibition was just the beginning. Herman next asks Jackie to make his dream a reality. After 4 decades of spending 23 hours a day in his cell and waiting to find out if the Louisiana courts will hear his latest appeal, he and Jackie are now combining their efforts to purchase land where they can build. Wallace is hoping his dream house will be built to provide refuge to needy children. The film shows Summell tediously scouting affordable land space. She found an open, airy area where the house could be built. When she told Wallace it was located in a nice, green, sub-urban part of New Orleans, he strongly protested saying that urban children would not have access. Summell continues to petition for his removal from solitary and also build the house Wallace would be proud to see named for him.

Canadian filmmaker Angad Singh Bhalla is the director. “Herman’s House” is his first feature documentary. Bhalla has produced work for labor unions, Human Rights Watch and The Center for Constitutional Rights. He is also a community organizer for immigrant rights and an editor on broadcast documentaries. He is currently in production with the National Film Board of Canada on “Inside Herman’s House” a companion web-based interactive project slated for release later this year.

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