THE HOUSE THAT HERMAN BUILT
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On Thursday February 8th 2001, Robert King Wilkerson walked out of Angola Prison after having served 29 years in solitary
confinement for a murder he did not commit. After decades of fierce legal battles the courts finally sent him home. Shortly
after his release, through the organizing efforts of Marina Drummer, he came through San Francisco on a speaking tour and
addressed a small audience. This is where Jackie Sumell was introduced to the Angola 3.King was memorably soft-spoken, and
offered no sign of injury, or anger, or resentment. He simply told his story and the stories of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace,
the other two men who, through their solidarity, struggle and history comprise the Angola 3. Angola, or the Louisiana
State Penitentiary, is an 18,000-acre former slave-breeding plantation so named for the place in Africa where the plantation
owner believed the most profitable slaves came from (*1).
Inside the slave-plantation-turned prison, the three men risked their lives to end prisoner rape, facilitate race relations and
improve inhumane conditions. Renown and consequently punished for their organizing efforts Woodfox, and Wallace, remain
in solitary confinement to date. In 1971, they started the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party making them visible targets
to the all white administration. The men continued their activism from within solitary confinement by organizing hunger strikes,
educating other prisoners, and by becoming reputable jail-house lawyers (*2).
After speaking for just under an hour about these experiences, King offered to answer questions. The entire room was silent,
made wordless by what we’d just heard. Not knowing what to say but feeling that something needed to be said, Jackie blurted out,
"What can I do?" His answer was equally simple. "Write my comrades."
Jackie's first letters to Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were identical. With out any better idea, she duct-taped a disposable
camera with 24 pictures to her forearm and set her watch alarm to beep every hour—at which time a snapshot was taken.
She sent them, formally addressed, "To Mr. Woodfox" and "To Mr. Wallace"—here are 24 hours in my simple life.
Thus began her correspondence with two incredible men.
Solitary confinement at Angola, or closed cell restriction (CCR) consists of a minimum 23 hours a day in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell
(2 meter x 3 meter), 7 days a week. When she began writing Herman, he was in Camp J, what Angola calls the 'Dungeon'.
It is the most punitive area of the prison, much more severe than CCR. It is the place where prisoners go to suffer. When the
current warden of Angola describes Camp J he states, "even a Death Row inmate will find the spartan quarters he once 'enjoyed'
on Death Row plush compared to Camp J." (*3) Herman was kept in the Dungeon for two years. Each time he was due to return to
solitary prison officials found another absurd reason to keep him in. Imagine, relief would mean returning to solitary confinement.
After about eight months of organizing on behalf of Herman and Albert, as a graduate studentat Stanford University, Miss Sumell was
given an assignment which required her to speak with the professor of choice about spatial relationships and indulgent dream homes.
Struggling to balance the futility of this assignment with the reality of Herman’s condition, (with the supportof both Herman’s lawyer
and his personal advocate), she asked Herman Wallace a very simple question:
"What kind of a house doesa man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?"
The answer to this question resulted in an extraordinary and ongoing journey. Since 2003, through extensive letter writing, phone calls,
and dozens of visits to the prison, Jackie has been translating Herman’s imagination. The project is currently fundraising to
begin building in Herman’s hometown of New Orleans. It is from his 36th year in solitary confinement at Angola Prison that
Herman is constructing a home. It is through a community of support that they are building Herman’s House. This community
includes an incredible network of architects, designers, builders, artists, friends, activists and others. Expressly, Scott Gustafson, an
Urbanist from Colorado is translating Herman’s drawings into working blueprints. Dan Hatch Studios are developing the CAD drawings,
ADPSR (Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility) are sustainability consultants, The Ross School on Long Island NY
has made the project part of their 11th grade curriculum, international designer Maria Hinds has donated thousands of hours of time to the
project, and an independent filmmaker named Angad Bhalla is producing a documentary that has already won several awards.
With out the network of support, building Herman’s House would be impossible and we encourage you to get involved as much as you can.
Now into his 36th year of solitary confinement, at Angola Prison that Herman is constructing a home. It is through a community of support
and interest that we are building Herman’s House. During a recent visit Herman remarked that ultimately through this house he
is free. The beauty of this project is undeniably contaminated by the hideous place from which it originates and unmistakably
indicative of the extreme duress Herman continues to endure. His incredible strength is illustrated through the triumph of his
imagination. It is the imagination of resistance, of resolution and of hope.
Herman, Albert, and Robert, like so many other prisoners, suffer greatly at the hands of a corrupt system that institutionalizes
racism. Their resolution is an inspiring testament to the human spirit. They are incredible men to whom and from whom
we all have much to learn. Befriending Herman Wallace has been one of the most significant experiences of Miss Sumell's life.
She no longer write prisoner #76759: she writes a friend, a comrade, a confidant. She writes a person. That change is revolutionary.
*1 - After the Civil War the plantation owner contracted with the State of Louisiana
to house prisoners for free in exchange for their labor. To visit Angola today is an
anachronism. The average prison sentence is 88 years. Angola’s prisoner population
which is now (only) 77.8% black. Every physically able prisoner is required to work.
Wages range between 4 and 20 cents an hour. Relatively, the 13th Amendment to
the US Constitution does not in fact eradicate slavery:
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof
the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any
place subject to their jurisdiction."
*2 - A prison inmate who is self-taught in the law and assists fellow inmates with
litigation. The term also refers to inmates who represent themselves in legal matters
relating to their sentence.
*3 - Cain’s Redemption, Dennis Shere, (Northfield Publishing) 2005, 39-42.
download the text as pdf
Angola is an 18,000 acre former slavebreeding plantation with an annual operating budget of $105,000,000.
Today: 5,439 male prisoners, 78% black. 88% of the population will die while incarcerated there. Point Lookout is the cemetery
on Angola and has been full since 1995. Point Lookout II opened across the road with 700 new graves. LSP is the largest employer
in West Feliciana Parish, providing more jobs than the nuclear power plant and paper mill combined. A new $10,000,000 Death Row
facility was completed in April 2007. The 11,300 seat arena which houses the annual Angola Prison Rodeo was completed in 2002,
with prison labor. 28,987 Religious Materials, and 8,424 Bibles were distributed prison wide in 2005. Approximately 400 religious
services and programs are offered each month throughout LSP. Labor is mandatory for all able bodied prisoners. Primary crops
corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat. Sustaining crops: tomatoes, cabbage, okra, watermelon, onions, beans, and peppers.
There is a 1,500 cattle beef herd, which is sold to the open market through Prison Enterprises. Prison Enterprises also manages the
for profit license tag shop, metal fabrication facility, mattress, broom and mop factories housed on Angola. Every physically able
prisoner is required to work for 2- 20 cents an hour a minimum of 40 hours a week. The Brent Miller rifle range was recently
renovated and provides employees of Angola with training in firearms, tactical response, chemical agents, electronic capture shields,
and restraints. Angola Website.
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