In Memoriam: Herman Wallace, October 13, 1941 – October 4, 2013


Herman Wallace photographed in September in the prison hospital. (c) Amnesty International

Herman Wallace, a 71 year old man who spent more than the last four decades in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison, passed away yesterday as a free man. Wallace was one of the ‘Angola 3′, three prisoners who were convicted of the murder of a prison guard at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary known as ‘The Farm’ or Angola. Angola has over the years been forced to address some of the inhumane conditions and violence against prisoners who at one time were housed in former slave quarters. Angola itself sits on the site of a former slave era plantation; the very land itself is steeped in the misery and exploitation of humanity.

At the time of Wallace’s conviction he was a member of the Black Panther party which was in part seeking to end the culture of rape and violence within the prison. In those racially charged times it was his association with the Black Panthers which supporters say led to Wallace and two other men being framed for the murder of a guard. Wallace maintained his innocence until the end, an end which came in his sleep at the home of a long time friend, surrounded by family and friends.

He was released from prison October 1, 2013 after a federal judge overturned his indictment based on the exclusion of women from the grand jury panel which indicted him. The momentous news came after countless failed attempts to appeal his conviction and repeated denials of compassionate release even after being diagnosed with liver cancer in June of this year. Only after the cancer ravaged his body and his health continued to deteriorate was he finally moved from solitary to a prison hospital. Inside the hospital, simply having a door he could walk through was but a small restoration of humanity for a man who had existed inside a locked 6 foot by 9 foot cell for more than half his life.

Wallace’s humanity and character were shared with the world through a documentary, “Herman’s House” released last year which chronicled his friendship with artist Jackie Sumell who began writing to him in 2001 and eventually asked him what kind of home a man in a 6×9 cell dreams of. The resulting collaboration between Wallace and Sumell is heartrending in its portrayal of a human spirit that never loses its capacity to dream of something better despite the most bleak circumstances. Wallace is a kind, giving soul who even includes in his dream house requests a garden for guests to wander through and enjoy.

Upon hearing of Wallace’s long delayed release the words of Langston Hughes’ powerful poem, “A Dream Deferred” kept echoing through my mind. What had the delayed dream of freedom done to Wallace, did his soul wither and dry up, did it fester and rot his goodness? Or would it cause an eruption, an explosion of a soul finally breaking free of its shackles? We will never truly know what those years in solitary confinement did to Wallace but we know how he left this world. He kept his positive spirit until the very end, an indomitable figure of strength of character, of humanity in the face of the inhumane. I like to think that when Wallace let out his last breath his deferred dream ignited an explosion inside the hearts and minds of all those who followed his story. An explosion fueled by injustice, sorrow and pain. An explosion which clears a way for something better and drives forward a fight for humanity.

I believe Wallace would have wanted it that way.