The dream home of a man in solitary confinement: Darkroom catches up with ‘Herman’s House’ filmmaker Angad Singh Bhalla
What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6′ x 9′ box for over 30 years dream of?
In 2002, after months of correspondence, artist Jackie Sumell posed that exact question to Herman Wallace, who may be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States. The answer to that question inspired a decade-long friendship between the two and is the basis for the international art exhibition “The House that Herman Built” — a first step in making Wallace’s dream home a reality.
The friendship between Sumell and Wallace, the injustice of solitary confinement and the power of art is at the heart of “Herman’s House,” a documentary from filmmaker Angad Singh Bhalla. The Darkroom caught up with Bhalla ahead of the doc’s national debut on PBS’ POV July 8.
According to Solitary Watch, there are 2.3 million people in jail, of those 80,000 are in solitary confinement.
“I thought it would be an interesting way to access the prison system,” says Bhalla, who began working on the documentary almost six years ago. “How do we define prisons as a living space, not necessarily as places of crime and punishment.”
Wallace has spent 40 years in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Penitentiary. While serving time for a robbery, the former Black Panther activist was convicted of the murder of a prison guard (to date he denies his involvement), along with fellow inmate Albert Woodfox. A third, Robert King, was also put in solitary but later convicted of a different murder. Subsequently dubbed “The Angola 3,” all three were placed in solitary confinement, who combined have served more than 100 years in isolation. Both Wallace and Woodfox remain in solitary.
Bhalla’s documentary focuses more on the harsh reality of solitary confinement and perseverance of the human spirt through Sumell and Wallace than on the details about Wallace’s case. In fact, Wallace is never seen, only heard. Using Sumell’s journey to make Herman’s dream house a reality and the unyielding hope of Wallace, Bhalla transforms the prison story into one that proves the power of transformative art changing harsh attitudes about prison.
“Their project together is essential to break through social problems we have,” Bhalla says. “While every form of protest and resistance is important, don’t underestimate art as part of that.”
Early on, Bhalla knew he wouldn’t get access to film inside the prison, so using the art project and the powerful relationship between Sumell and Wallace, he wanted to present the prison debate in a new light, a cross-section between art and the corrections system.
“I hope viewers start to question what is happening within the criminal justice system,” Bhalla says. “My role [as a filmmaker] is to bring out some of the contradictions that exist, that solitary confinement isn’t a viable solution to our problems. On a certain level, these people are human beings in prison. In the film, I hope you meet Herman and think of him as a human being, and start to think this is someone’s friend, somebody’s mentor, somebody’s brother.”
Wallace has yet to see the documentary, but may have the opporunity to see the July 8 broadcast. According to Bhalla, Wallace was recently diagnosed with liver cancer and has been moved to the infirmary where he remains isolated from other prisoners. Meanwhile, Sumell continues to work on the project, fundraising to get Herman’s house built in Louisiana.
Center for Investigative Reporting: Solitary Lives