The Legacy of Herman Wallace: Solitary Confinement and the Self by Serena Maszak

Multimedia, Prose


Credit: jackie sumell
Credit: jackie sumell


Pieces of broken mirror cover the outer walls of Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum. Inside, a life-size Icarus dangles from the ceiling, slowly rotating on a motor. Up a circular staircase lined by more glass shards, removed from immediate view, a small room holds an even smaller room—a replica of the 6’ x 9’ prison cell that, in turn, held Herman Wallace for forty-one years.

Wallace was an activist and member of the Angola Three, a group of men whose solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison became a focal point for activists against inhumane prison conditions. Artist Jackie Sumell contacted Wallace after hearing the story of Robert King, who rounded out the A3 along with Albert Woodfox. During their letter correspondence in 2003, Sumell posed this question: What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6’ x 9’ cell for over thirty years dream of?

Wallace’s answer was elaborate and colorful. With Sumell’s help, Wallace created an expansive, textured, lushly flowered house that has been digitally given life through a computer-aided design [above]. The master bedroom has mirrors on the ceiling, a mosaic of a black panther is embedded in the pool, and one of the bathrooms has a frosted shower inspired by the thirty-plus years Wallace had gone without privacy. Framed portraits of people inspiring to Wallace, including Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, greet the visitor. Gardens radiate from the house: “I can see they would be certain to be full of gardenias, carnations, and tulips. I would like for guests to be able to walk through flowers all year long,” Wallace says. He narrates the entire walk-through, winding through rooms that reveal much, in their carefully selected detail, about the extreme dehumanization of solitary confinement and the singular humanity of Wallace and his fellow inmates.

The current popularity of solitary confinement is inseparable from the rise of supermax (super-maximum custody) prisons during the 80s, in large part due to an escalating fear of gang violence behind bars. A supermax facility is designed to control the behavior of inmates who are supposedly dangerously unpredictable. Most typically, it involves minimal human contact, a 6’ by 9’ cell, and an average of twenty-two hours spent in the cell. Physical contact is often limited to a security officer touching an inmate while removing or applying restraints. Not only is social contact extremely limited in solitary confinement, but it is rarely a meaningful or empathic exchange.

Other prison facilities that don’t fall under the supermax categorization may still have units that fit this description (known as Special Housing Units or Special Management Units). In addition to disciplinary purposes, solitary may be used for remand prisoners who are held to protect a case or await trial. While the constitutionality of solitary confinement (i.e. whether it falls into the category of “cruel and unusual punishment”) has been debated, the subsequent evaluation of solitary conditions is usually of the physical, not mental, effects of confinement. The Supreme Court has not yet been faced with a case that would force it to define someone’s psychological needs in accordance with the 8th Amendment.

The House That Herman Built is a testament to what it means to be uniquely human. Wallace’s ability to conceive of time and meaning allowed him to use his forced imprisonment as a catalyst for another distinctly human activity—artistic expression. He twined together illegal materials to craft flowers, and covered his envelopes to Sumell in detailed doodles. The extent of his specificity in describing his dream house is astonishing, given that he faced the same grey walls for twenty-three hours out of the day. Wallace’s confinement was intended to be a punishment for a criminal, and it was intentionally structured to erase his other roles in life. Wallace as an artist, activist, son, American, etc. must yield to Wallace the inmate, because Wallace the inmate must give up his freedom and his time.


credit: jackie sumell
Flowers crafted by Wallace, on display at the  American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore for the exhibit, which ran Oct 2015-Dec 2016.

credit: jackie sumell



In The Poetics of Space, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes, “We are unable to relive duration that has been destroyed. We can only think of it, in the line of an abstract time that is deprived of all thickness … And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us … We return to them in our night dreams.” This sentiment is reinforced by Robert King in an interview with The Guardian in 2010: “I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there.”

Solitary confinement has been described as a living death, because it invokes a sense of surreality, of a world lost because the people who were active participants in molding it have been removed. The resulting psychological fracturing holds the secondary danger of reinforcing commonly held “truths” about prisoners—that they are mentally ill, emotionally unstable, and prone to violent or impulsive behavior. But in light of the definition of insanity, “extreme foolishness or irrationality,” isolated prisoners can hardly be pathologized for responding to their degenerative environment by degenerating.

Philosopher Dr. Shaun Gallagher finds an important link between solitary confinement and Heidegger’s idea that human existence is structured in being-with-others. Gallagher argues that “an erosion of the sense of reality” can happen without other people around to verify one’s own interpretation of reality. This carries heavy implications for deprivation from human contact—Gallagher even goes so far as to say that humans are “‘hard-wired’ to be other-oriented.” Deprivation of meaningful social contact has even been linked to a state of induced autism. This finding has been backed by the observations of Shane Bauer, a former hostage held in Iranian solitary confinement for four months who studied American prisons after his release. If Heidegger was right in thinking the self is constructed through intersubjectivity, then solitary confinement necessitates not only losing time, losing relationships, and losing agency, but also losing one’s sense of self.

In the same vein as Heidegger, Edmund Husserl describes the mind as “not a thing but a relation”. Inherent in this relation is an external point of fixation, another entity with which to relate. Without this tethering point, lived experience becomes trackless, a loop with no defining structure. The passage of time itself is unhinged–it is common for cells in the SHU or other isolated units to be illuminated twenty-four hours a day, without a window or other means of marking time. Psychologist Erich Fromm takes this emphasis on social relativity one step further by placing it at the center of human existence. In his treatise on relationships, The Art of Loving, he names the need to overcome one’s separateness as “man’s deepest need … the absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity.”

Few argue that uncoupling from a tangible reality, verifiable only through triangulation with others, is without serious consequences. An analysis of data on inmate self-harm in New York City jails carried out by Kaba et al. found: “Inmates punished by solitary confinement were approximately 6.9 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm after we controlled for the length of jail stay, SMI [serious mental illness], age, and race/ethnicity.” This increase in self-harm is only partially explained by the mental agony of solitary confinement—self-harm can be strategically used by inmates as a way to be moved out of solitary confinement. These desperate measures call into question the current approach towards inmates’ mental health. If inmates are willing to physically harm themselves to avoid solitary confinement, we need to reevaluate their status as humans, with new mindfulness of their psychological life as well as their physical reality.

In his review of the research on solitary confinement, Peter Scharff Smith writes of American prisons in the early 1800s: “The inmate was expected to turn his thoughts inward, to meet God, to repent his crimes, and eventually to return to society as a morally cleansed Christian citizen.” In fact, the first American prisons used isolation and mandatory silence to encourage personal reflection, though these practices were later nixed after their deleterious impact on prisoners’ mental health became clear. Yet research shows one’s sense of self and thus one’s sense of self-improvement is, as Gallagher puts it, “intricately coupled to others.” As humans, we create value and meaning by weaving a story out of our kaleidoscopic experiences. Without someone to hear the story and without a chronology to hold the story, the story exists but is comatose.

The body is the seat of the mind, where the mind happens, but it does not set the boundaries of the mind. If the body is a cage, Wallace’s creation is proof that the mind can make itself smaller than the gaps between bars. Wallace’s confinement was undoubtedly torturous, surreal, and painful, and he expresses this in his letters to Sumell. In the virtual tour of his house, he gives explanations for certain features, such as the master bedroom’s jacuzzi bathtub, six square feet larger than his cell. In the words of Sumell, “[The House That Wallace Built] illustrates not only what is wrong, but also what is possible.”

Todd Ashker, who spent twenty-five years in Pelican Bay State Prison’s SHU unit, said to a New York Times reporter: “Our society was based on, was originated on, we believe that human beings can be redeemed. They’re redeemable.” Pervasive through the stories of these inmates is the weight of deprivation and loss. The use of solitary confinement declares that only certain lives are redeemable, that only certain lives deserve to inhabit, create, and flourish. Wallace’s conviction was overturned in 2013. He died three days after his release. “Flowers all year long.”


Serena Maszak is a graduate student and writer living in Brooklyn.