The Injustice of Solitary Confinement
Herman Wallace has been in a six foot by nine foot cell for over thirty years. Artist Jackie Sumell captures his life as she examines the injustice of prolonged solitary confinement. This is a compelling, devastating and hopeful look at Herman Wallace and whether or not solitary confinement is an acceptable way of punishment. Sumell is a multidisciplinary artist; Wallace is a Black Panther who Sumell asked to imagine what his dream house would look like if he was out of jail. It is through this question that director Angad Bhalla is able to get the audience to question solitary confinement regardless of guilt, crime or reason. We do not hear why solitary confinement is bad and why it might be considered torture and how it is financially unsustainable. The film was made under the assumption that it is wrong which it proves by having Sumell interview Wallace at Louisiana’s Angola penitentary.
The idea for the film is a result of Sumell’s wood-cut representation of Wallace’s cell. Wallace has been in solitary for 40 years. The film opens with a dark screen and the voice of Wallace describing his home, a 6’x9’ cell in which he spends 23 hours of every day and can only move four feet in one direction. He says he is used to it and that is what makes it so bad. We never see Wallace and this gives us an added dimension to the film. Most of us who live free, do not know about and do not think about life behind bars. Wallace’s voice tells us of a world that we are incapable of comprehending and just the fact that he has access to a phone is something.
Wallace and Sumell are worlds apart in every way. They come together through Sumell’s dream house project. We learn some interesting facts about Wallace who was convicted in 1967 of robbing a bank (which he says is true) and again convicted in 1972 of murdering a prison guard (which he denies). This is what we learn about his criminal past.
Sumell began writing to Wallace in 2001 and she asked him what he imagined his dream house to be. In 2006 Sumell had an exhibition in which she showed her representation of Wallace’s dream house which was to be a center for youth in trouble. Wallace who is now 70 will die in prison and the house will never be. Wallace engages with the outside world through art and this is what seems to be saving his sanity.
The film focuses on Sumell who is on a mission to raise awareness of Wallace’s situation. Questions are raised about solitary confinement. It is a form of torture which this country refuses to recognize and it has taken a Canadian filmmaker to bring it to our attention. One Canadian reviewer says:
“…is an extraordinary film about extraordinary people in a country that has sadly learned nothing since 1776 but the right of might, the power of the dollar and the exploitation of the poor – a country that purports to be the most powerful democracy in the world, but is little more than a backwards Totalitarian State – run by a greedy, mean-spirited, prejudiced Old Boys Club. Or, call them what you will – an oligarchy, gangsters, the New World Order – or Hell, why not all three? Bush I, Bush II, Clinton, Obama, all those before and all those who will come after – they’re just puppets anyway. To paraphrase Michael Corleone in Godfather II: They’re all a part of the same hypocrisy”.
There is a lot here and what we see stays with us and makes us think which to me is a sign of excellent filmmaking.