by Jason Ryan
Photography by Leslie McKellar
The United States is home to the world’s largest prison population, but for many Americans, these inmates are out of sight, out of mind. Through her bold and provocative artwork, Jackie Sumell ’96 aims to make U.S. prison policies, including the use of long-term solitary confinement, part of our everyday conversation.
She was dressed like a clown. A clown who had raided the closet of an awkward teenage girl from the 1980s. Jackie Sumell ’96 marched through school one Friday afternoon sporting frilly green bloomers and a mock turtleneck featuring a unicorn. On her head rested a tiara and a pair of funky eyeglasses. Even for Sumell, an artist whose “normal” attire often includes suspenders and socks with bright stripes, this outfit was a bit much. She was giddy as she strolled the halls to pick up one of her young neighbors from detention, hoping to embarrass Malik so badly that he’d never again earn after-school punishment.
Parents, of course, are the ones normally expected to pick their children up from detention hall. But this is the Seventh Ward, where such an expectation is not always realistic. In the Seventh Ward, like other poor New Orleans neighborhoods, many parents are absent. Some have been waylaid by drug addictions. Many others are locked up, especially fathers: One in 14 black men in New Orleans is in prison, and one in seven is either behind bars or on parole or probation. Beyond that, the state of Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country; a rate that is five times that of Iran’s and 13 times that of China’s, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Sumell wants to change those numbers, in part by preventing local boys’ visits to school detention halls from transitioning into stints in prison. This involves showing children that a larger world exists beyond the Seventh Ward. Thus, Sumell has taken her neighbors’ kids on trips with her to Ireland and Los Angeles, and, each summer for three years, she and her roommate, Emily Posner, have sent a handful of children off to summer camp in Maine.
Sumell’s kindness also includes providing positive distractions at home. In the Seventh Ward, where Sumell bought a home in 2008, she maintains what’s more or less an open-door policy. Neighborhood kids come and go as they please, visiting Sumell to play, talk, enjoy healthy snacks (including many fruits and veggies grown in her backyard garden) and stay out of trouble. Sumell considers them her godchildren, like family.
Given the bleak realities of Sumell’s neighborhood, it might seem like a tall order to stem the tide of young men and women drifting toward crime and prison. It might seem like an even taller order, too, to revolutionize the criminal justice system in America, which is another of Sumell’s goals.
But Sumell has faith in her mission, and faith in the power of art and creativity to affect people. And, occasionally, her unconventional approaches to problems produce quick results, as was the case with the boy in detention. After Sumell appeared in the lacy bloomers and tiara, Malik stayed out of trouble for the rest of the year.
Such victories give her hope.
Lives edited by tragedy
Sumell first came to New Orleans during one of its darkest hours, when the Big Easy was still reeling in September 2005 from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. On account of the devastation, police tightly controlled access to the city in the weeks after the storm. Sumell gained entrance only after putting her artistic chops to work and fabricating invitations from the Red Cross. She rode into town with a truckload of bicycles and other supplies to confront dysfunction and disaster.
She slept with other volunteers at the overcrowded home of former Black Panther Malik Rahim in Algiers, a New Orleans neighborhood largely spared from flooding. The volunteers, who called themselves Common Ground Collective, soon set up a health clinic, a radio station and a communication center, where storm survivors could fill out forms for government relief and contact loved ones by computer.
The experience was overwhelming. On her blog, Sumell likened New Orleans to the landscape of Mars, with everything covered by “greyish-purple silt” from the Mississippi and “the debris of 300,000 people’s lives.” It smelled horrible, thanks to rotting meat, rotting animals and rotting humans. There were few other civilians moving through the streets, but lots of soldiers, Humvees and hungry dogs. New Orleans was a ghost town, a wasteland, and yet there were moments of splendor that transcended the destruction. It reminded her of the way she felt when her mother died from lung cancer a few months earlier, when Sumell’s life was filled with “the most impossible moments and the most beautiful moments.”
As she wrote on her blog during a break from relief efforts:
for me, this is amazing. this is inspiring, this is hope, this is lifechanging, this is what I am coming back to. People have been driving 60 hours straight from canada, san francisco, indiana, new york, you name it, to get here and give whatever time or skills they have.
It’s so hard to describe, but I have to say for me on a very personal level, it references much the experience of my mother dying, where everything was so hard, everything seemed impossible and cruel and sad and unfair and gross, but around that flourished the human spirit that wouldn’t allow myself or my family to collapse. I was humbled by it then on this very personal very myopic scale and I am humbled by it now when it is multiplied by the thousands. When life is edited by tragedy, when the bullshit is pushed aside, when we have nothing left to connect with but our humanness people are amazing. There is ineffable good in the wake of life edited by tragedy.
In the months to come, the smell went away, the rot was removed. People came back to New Orleans, at least some of them, and Sumell stayed among them, eventually buying her house in the Seventh Ward. By her own admission, Katrina had radicalized Sumell, which is saying something. Sumell has always been unconventional – an easy mark, striped socks and all, for the nickname Wacky Jackie.
What makes Jackie wacky? Well, she regularly refers to other people as “human doings” instead of human beings. She was a beauty pageant contestant and also the first female tackle football player on Long Island. (She’d later use her athletic talents to captain the Cougar’s first Division I women’s soccer team and run cross country.) She routinely overpays at toll booths to take care of the strangers queued behind her. She allegedly threw a college boyfriend’s camera off the top of the Cooper River Bridge.
What else? She once shaved off half of her brother Matt’s eyebrow. Considering Matt has an autoimmune disease that already causes sudden hair loss on his head and eyebrows, this was like stealing blankets from the homeless. For months Matt colored in his missing eyebrow with a Sharpie. In 2001, while an art student in San Francisco, Sumell collected hundreds of baggies of women’s shaved pubic hair to protest the recent election of President George W. Bush and his policies regarding women’s reproductive rights. The ensuing exhibit of baggies, entitled, “No Bush! – It’s not yours, it’s mine,” was displayed at the National Organization of Women’s march in Washington, D.C., a few months after Bush’s inauguration.
Yet perhaps the most unexpected, and sustained, action of Sumell’s often quirky existence has been her friendship and advocacy on behalf of the Angola Three – three prisoners who have each spent decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola Prison. The penitentiary, whose nickname comes from the name of a former slave plantation that comprises part of its 18,000 acres along the Mississippi River, is one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the United States, housing more than 5,000 inmates. Among the inmate population for many years were the Angola Three – Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, a trio with the distinction of being prisoners who have, by all known accounts, spent the longest amount of time in solitary confinement in the United States. Wallace and Woodfox, who were recently transferred to other Louisiana prisons, spent more than 40 years each in solitary confinement in Angola, sequestered from the general population in cells measuring six by nine feet for 23 hours a day, seven days a week. King spent nearly 30 years in solitary confinement in Angola before being released in 2001.
Soon after King’s release he spoke in San Francisco, where Sumell was studying nearby as a graduate art student at Stanford University. Listening to King recount his experiences in Angola and solitary confinement, Sumell was shocked and smothered by a sense of injustice. What, she wondered, could be the rationale for indefinite and long-term solitary confinement? What good comes of sticking men in cells by themselves for decades?
She asked King what she could do to help. “Write my comrades,” he told her. So she did, only her letters to Wallace and Woodfox also included 24 photos that showed them what she saw in one day.
Sumell had taped a disposable camera to her forearm, set her watch to ring an alarm every hour, and then took a snapshot each time it beeped, no matter where she was. Such efforts, though initially bewildering to the inmates, led to friendship, especially with Wallace. Little did Sumell know that this friendship would dominate the next 10 years of her life.
Big problems in the big house
When you befriend a prisoner, you inevitably learn about life in prison. Sumell, who had previously given little thought to America’s prison system and the lives of its inmates, discovered many aspects of the modern prison system, including its enormity. Consider:
• The United States has the highest prison population in the world, with about 2 million people behind bars.
• The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country, with one out every 107 American adults in prison.
• Since 1980, America’s prison population has grown by about 800 percent, severely outpacing the general population, which has increased by about a third.
This explosion in the American prison population has one basic explanation: Laws and policies enacted in the last few decades ensure people go to prison for longer amounts of time.
Specifically, the reasons include
• the passage of three strikes laws (also known as habitual offender laws) that require severe punishment for a third felony, even if it is a nonviolent offense;
• a ramped-up War on Drugs, including severe mandatory minimum sentences for users of crack cocaine (about half of federal offenders are incarcerated for drug-related crimes);
• the passage of truth-in-sentencing laws, which reduce the chance for early release;
• the abolition of federal parole, and the abolition or de facto abolition of parole in many states; and
• a general increase in the length of sentences and existence of mandatory minimum sentence laws for a variety of offenses.
Some people credit these tough-on-crime tactics with reducing crime and as appropriate responses to changes in criminal patterns. Indeed, America’s violent crime rate is less than a third of what it was in 1982, and less than half of what it was in 1997, according to an August article in The Economist. But, as the article also notes, many criminal justice experts feel that America has long gone beyond the point necessary to obtain such decreased crime rates, resulting in overcrowded prison systems and an insufficient standard of justice. These critics also argue there is little chance for prisoners’ rehabilitation given the status quo.
One of these critics is College of Charleston professor Heath Hoffmann, an expert in criminology who chairs the sociology and anthropology department. Hoffmann laments that, in the last half century, politics have often trumped science and research when it comes to decision-making regarding prisons. Prisons today focus less on inmate rehabilitation than they used to and now function more like warehouses for those convicted of crimes. Nationwide, a prisoner costs an average of $31,286 each year, according to a 2012 study by the Vera Institute of Justice.
Despite some depictions of prison life in the media, Hoffmann says, prison remains a “horrible” place filled by people with little hope: “It’s not a system. It’s a responsive, reactive political football that is really expensive.”
Hoffmann believes there is a need for prisons, but also believes that prisons should better facilitate healing and better prepare inmates for re-entry to society. Misconceptions and poor public policy regarding prisons exist because people are generally unfamiliar with the realities of the prison system and prisoner life. In an effort to change this, Hoffmann regularly takes some of his sociology students to Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, S.C., to meet inmates and see the environment they live in. The students are typically uneasy after the visit, trying to square a sense of sympathy or even affection for the prisoners with knowledge of their crimes.
“They feel torn inside,” says Hoffmann. “It’s messy when you get in that gray area. Humans like things that are black or white. You’re either good or bad.”
Hoffmann himself often experiences sadness after leaving prison, frustrated that inmates have forfeited freedom and are unable to lead productive, fulfilling lives beyond the prison walls.
“What’s depressing about going there,” he says, “is this is the best we’ve come up with to deal with crime.”
The status quo depresses Sumell, too. Ask her what’s wrong with America’s prison systems and she’ll bemoan the lack of restorative justice, which is designed, through the guidance of experts, to promote a reconciliation between victims and perpetrators that allows lives to move forward following a crime. She’ll rage against the prison industrial complex, in which business interests – whether companies that build and operate prisons or manufacturers who use prison labor – are aligned with high incarceration rates and a lack of prisoner rights. What grieves Sumell most, however, is what affected her friend Wallace in Angola prison as well as tens of thousands of other prisoners each year: the widespread use of long-term solitary confinement.
In 1970, at the age of 27, Wallace began a 25-year sentence for armed robbery and was soon transferred to Louisiana State Penitentiary. Angola has long been known as one of the toughest prisons in the country, undergoing a number of reforms throughout the 20th century following scandals.
In the 1950s, for example, work conditions were so bad that 31 inmates sliced their Achilles tendons to protest the brutality. In the late 1960s, Angola earned a reputation as the bloodiest prison in the South due to the number of inmate assaults that occurred. A few years later, when Wallace arrived, Angola was still racially segregated, inmates were entrusted with guns and a notorious sex slavery system was in operation among the inmates. It was within this atmosphere that Wallace and Woodfox helped organize a chapter of the Black Panthers within the prison, demanding changes in the treatment of black prisoners and organizing work stoppages.
A year or so later, in 1972, prison guard Brent Miller was stabbed to death in a dorm of the penitentiary. After interrogations of dozens of prisoners, Wallace and Woodfox were charged with murdering Miller. Though the men denied killing the guard, all- white juries quickly convicted them in separate trials. Both men were given life sentences.
In the decades to come, the murder cases against Wallace and Woodfox were revealed to have significant flaws. The chief witness against the men, an inmate, was found to have been given favors and was promised a pardon by prison officials for his testimony (and was eventually pardoned). Two other witnesses recanted their testimony. Another eyewitness was legally blind, and yet another was heavily medicated at the time of Miller’s death. These witnesses’ original statements and testimonies, too, were riddled with inconsistencies. The cases have appeared shoddy enough that even Miller’s widow has expressed doubts about the guilt of Wallace and Woodfox. Louisiana, on the other hand, maintains their guilt. The men’s cases and incarcerations continue to undergo legal appeals and review today, more than 40 years after Miller was killed. Woodfox and Wallace’s fellow Angola Three inmate, King, was convicted of a separate murder within the prison, though he also denied culpability.
Since their convictions, King, Wallace and Woodfox have spent almost all of their prison time in solitary confinement, otherwise known as Closed Cell Restricted, or CCR, by Louisiana authorities. Solitary confinement policies in prisons across the country and world go by many names, including the SHU (pronounced shoe), an acronym meaning either Special or Security Housing Unit. Inmates tend to refer to solitary confinement as the hole or lockdown. Whatever the name, these terms all refer to a prisoner being kept in a cell by himself for about 23 hours a day. A stint in solitary may last a few days, or, in the case of the Angola Three, decades. Prison officials in Louisiana renewed Wallace and Woodfox’s stay in solitary confinement more than 150 times. and unusual punishment and violates a prisoner’s constitutional rights.
Critics of solitary confinement, including Sumell, believe long-term or indefinite solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and violates a prisoner’s constitutional rights. These critics believe solitary confinement, especially for long periods of time, can cause severe psychological damage and worsen an inmate’s behavior and chances of rehabilitation. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has said that solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 consecutive days is an inhuman form of punishment. Some prison officials, on the other hand, consider solitary confinement an effective way to isolate prisoners who are violent, who incite unrest among the prison population or who have mental health problems.
But critics say that even if there are some legitimate uses for solitary confinement, it is drastically overused. A 2005 census by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found more than 80,000 inmates were kept in some type of restrictive housing in federal and state prisons. In California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, approximately 1,500 inmates are in solitary confinement, including 400 who have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade. In July, prisoners at Pelican Bay began a two-month hunger strike to protest the widespread use of solitary confinement.
Each Friday last summer Sumell joined them in solidarity, forgoing food.
Sumell has protested solitary confinement policies in other ways, too. In 2002, shortly after beginning her pen-pal correspondence with Wallace, Sumell was given an assignment at Stanford that required her to interview a professor of her choice about dream homes and spatial relationships. Given Wallace’s spartan living conditions in a small cell, Sumell struggled to concentrate on such extravagant housing. She modified the assignment and wrote to Wallace with an unexpected question:
“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?”
And so began The House That Herman Built, a collaboration in which Sumell unleashed Wallace’s imagination and had him design a home outside of his cell. Herman’s creation is unique, and it bears the marks of a man imprisoned for decades, as his house comes complete with an underground bunker. It also features a greenhouse, gardens, a pool with a black panther on its bottom and a Revolutionary Wall of Fame featuring portraits of freedom fighters, including Harriet Tubman and John Brown. Sumell, after corresponding with Wallace for years about the house plans, created architectural drawings, 3-D renderings and a scale model of the house. The House That Herman Built had its debut in 2006 in Germany, and has since been exhibited more than 20 times in a dozen countries. In 2010 it was featured briefly in In the Land of the Free…, a documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson that examines the legal cases of the Angola Three.
It wasn’t enough. And so Sumell took the scale models and blueprints and began trying to build Wallace’s house, hoping it would function as a community center. This process, which is still ongoing, is documented in the 2012 film Herman’s House, which aired nationally on PBS last summer.
Just prior to that, in May, the Open Society Foundations named Sumell a 2013 Soros Justice Fellow. She and 13 other journalists, lawyers, organizers and scholars will split an award of $1.2 million as they promote various types of justice reform in the United States. With her award, Sumell is planning a new media campaign to connect prison reform activists and end the use of long-term solitary confinement.
Sumell’s idealism masks the tumult of her life and work, which are intertwined. Her assistant, Hillary Donnell, credits her for being “radiantly positive” and able to find good in the most depressing situations. Though Sumell may seem aloof at times, Donnell says her mind is always in high gear, and that by having one foot in and one foot out, Sumell is able to cope with such taxing work. There are a lot of demands on Sumell, notes Donnell, from a lot of people.
There are the children in the Seventh Ward, as well as adult neighbors, that count on Sumell. There are prisoners that rely on her, as well as other activists involved with the Angola Three. There’s her own career to tend to, her personal life, the yoga classes to teach on the side and fundraising for the construction of Herman’s House.
Such stress is not always easily managed. Early on in Sumell’s relationship with the Angola Three, Sumell was crushed when a legal decision was not made in one of the prisoner’s favor. She was new to this type of activism, unaccustomed to the legal seesawing – or pure disappointment – that is common to criminal justice cases. Seeing her reaction, another activist bluntly told her that maybe she wasn’t cut out for this type of work.
The remark, if searing, was instructional.
“If you get really emotional about the wrongs, you shouldn’t be doing this,” says Sumell, “because they happen more than the rights.”
In July, Wallace was removed from Angola’s solitary confinement and transferred to a small dormitory with other inmates at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, La. For the first time in 11 years, Sumell knew Wallace could walk without shackles, freely get a drink of water and open a door himself. Sumell visited him one weekend and they hugged.
“I thought, This is unbelievable, this is unbelievable,” remembers Sumell.
Unfortunately, these changes occurred after Wallace received a diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. As the summer progressed, his health deteriorated steadily and he lost a significant amount of weight. Wallace’s hope that his murder conviction would be overturned was now not only a fight against the system, but also a race against time. Yet in a way, his own fate had ceased to matter. For Wallace, and his supporters, the struggle had long ago become larger.
“One of the greatest things I learned from Herman is, it’s not about him, it’s not about me,” says Sumell. “We do this work to serve a higher purpose, to shift the wrongs of the system.”
A higher purpose, however, doesn’t pay the bills. Sumell sometimes wonders what life might be like if she were a physical therapist with a sizeable 401k. She’d be able to fix her car and could afford some needed dental work. But that would come at the expense of ignoring what she perceives to be injustice.
“I never question the integrity of my life,” says Sumell, “and that gives me freedom.”
Still, for all the hassles, there are good days, such as August 12, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government would be revising some of its law enforcement policies.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Holder said at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. … It imposes a significant economic burden – totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone – and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
And, once in a blue moon, perhaps once in a lifetime, there is a great day. A day that provides tonic to the cynicism inevitably accrued with age. A day that makes you forget about the outstanding bills, broken-down car and lost legal battles and just jump up and down with joy. For Sumell, this day was October 1.
Two days before, Sumell had visited Wallace in prison and said a final goodbye to her ailing friend. She brought him a cut-out black panther and read to him. Wallace, who was now deathly ill, managed to say a few words and smile as he drifted in and out of consciousness. The visit was gut-wrenching, and Sumell left the prison a wreck, having felt she had failed her friend.
“This is not the promise I made him,” Sumell recalls thinking. “The promise was he would not die in prison.”
Two days later, Sumell was lying in bed when her phone rang. Sumell saw that the caller was a fellow friend and advocate to Wallace. Her heart sank. No doubt, Sumell thought, this is the call delivering the bad news, that Wallace had finally passed away.
Instead, Sumell was told something that made her flee her home, gather a few friends and light celebratory fireworks in New Orleans’ immense City Park: Herman Wallace had been ordered free. Later that evening Sumell and a few dozen other supporters cheered as Wallace arrived at a New Orleans hospital by ambulance, free for the first time in 42 years. Earlier that day, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Jackson overturned Wallace’s murder indictment and granted him a new trial. Wallace’s indictment for murder was unconstitutional, said Judge Jackson, because women had been excluded from the grand jury.
Coincidentally, Wallace had already been scheduled to have a legal meeting in prison that day with his lawyers and the other two members of the Angola Three regarding ongoing legal issues related to their long-term solitary confinement. King and Woodfox were expecting to say their goodbyes to Wallace at the meeting. Instead, they told him he was going home to New Orleans.
Wallace did not last long outside of prison. He died the morning of October 4, less than three days after his release. In that time he was in the constant company of friends and family. In that time he was also re-indicted by a grand jury for the murder of the prison guard, as Louisiana authorities are adamant that Wallace remained a guilty man.
A few days of freedom may not seem like much on the heels of more than 40 years in solitary confinement. Especially when another keeper, cancer, does not heed a judge’s orders. Nonetheless, Sumell considers the end of Wallace’s life nothing short of magical. She could not, she says, have scripted something better.
Sumell is still working to build Herman’s House in New Orleans. She knows that as time goes on, the children of the Seventh Ward are growing older, accelerating to adulthood, a place where lacy green bloomers and tiaras have limited effect. If Sumell can intercept them, she can teach them their lives have value, and that a world of possibility looms just beyond the immediate, blighted streets.
The release of Wallace buoyed Sumell’s hopes for criminal justice reform and provided a remarkable punctuation to a relationship between an artist and a man defined chiefly by the container he was kept inside for decades. Sumell knows that other challenges may diminish this hope, and that systemwide change does not come easy or quickly. She also knows that when the going gets tough, she can remember the years of struggle she and Wallace endured together, and the happy outcome they ultimately achieved, no matter how quixotic their fight might have sometimes seemed.
Sumell believes there is a lesson in the dramatic turn of events that comprised the end of Wallace’s life, and that the tiniest sliver of hope can never be misplaced.
“It’s the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me,” says Sumell. “You can never stop shy of a miracle.”
For more information about Sumell, visit HermansHouse.org or follow her on Twitter: @JackieSumell, #stopsolitary