Herman Wallace was held in a cage for 40 years. What does this say about us?

By the time Herman Wallace was released from prison earlier this month, he had been kept in solitary confinement for over 40 years. He died shortly after his release. Yet there was no physical evidence to link him to his alleged crime. Is this justice?

Scot Nakagawa
16 October 2013

Herman Wallace. Credit: Some rights reserved.

By the time Herman Wallace was released from prison in Louisiana on October 1st 2013, he had been held in solitary confinement for over 40 years.

His release was ordered by federal judge Brian A. Jackson because women had been excluded from the jury that convicted him of killing a prison guard in 1974.

Three days after his release, Wallace died of liver cancer. He was 71 years old. 

Wallace was originally arrested for burglary and incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. Angola is no ordinary prison. It's a work camp that harkens back to the immediate post-Civil War era, when special laws called black codes targeting former slaves were instituted throughout the South in order to facilitate the mass incarceration of newly freed black men. Once imprisoned, they were leased to private industries as virtual slaves. Angola is overwhelmingly black. In many respects, it functions like the former plantation on which it was built.

In 1971, Wallace and two other prisoners formed a chapter of the Black Panther Party at Angola. According to Wallace, this act resulted in prison authorities labelling them “black militants”, and framing them for the murder of white prison guard, Brent Miller, in 1972. They became known as the “Angola 3.”

Miller was stabbed to death, but no physical evidence linked Wallace and his associates to the crime. Miller and the Angola 3 weren't the only victims in this case. Teenie Verret, Miller's widow, has given most of her adult life to vindicating the innocence of the three men convicted of killing her husband. On three separate occasions, courts have agreed with Verret and overturned Wallace's conviction. Each time he was re-convicted by another court.

For nearly 42 years, Herman Wallace lived alone in a six foot by nine-foot cell. As a comparison, a king sized bed measures six feet by six feet, while a medium sized sofa is about six by three. He was placed in solitary confinement in this tiny space for longer than any other prisoner in U.S. history for a crime no one can prove he committed. DNA evidence that might have cleared the three men has been lost, and the testimony of the main eyewitness in the case has been discredited. In fact, Wallace’s release on October 1st was based on the theory that the jury in his case was rigged.

The news of Wallace's death brought me to tears. I don't normally find myself crying over the plight of a stranger but this news exposed a well of grief I thought I'd buried a good many years ago.

I found myself revisiting old memories of childhood friends who were lost to prison, suicide, and violence. Those losses inspired me to work with young people in crisis more than 30 years ago when I was in my late teens. In that work I was witness to the last days, months and years of freedom, and in some cases of life, of many young people.

These youngsters were victimized by policies that spread hopelessness among the disadvantaged - making the idea of dying young or going to prison seem a worthwhile risk, perhaps even romantic.

Prison played a role in every death. The unjust use of incarceration as a means of social control reinforced this sense of hopelessness among young people in crisis. These kids were victims of the system. Working within it to help them seemed futile, and it was this that called me to political activism.

So this article is not only about Herman Wallace. It's also about those who suffer because life feels like prison to them, while death too often feels like a means of escape.

The recidivism rate for murder is theorized to be lower than for almost any other kind of crime. Prison is a poor deterrent, and neither does capital punishment decrease the rate. Yet we insist on the permanent confinement or execution of those who are convicted of these crimes. Why? Because we care little about whether imprisonment and execution are deterrents.

We put people away because we’ve convinced ourselves that those who commit crimes are monsters so different from ourselves that they must be confined in cages, or executed.

But when we reduce people to monsters, and put them in solitary confinement, and keep them confined to cells only six by nine feet in size for decades and call it “justice”, the harm caused reaches far beyond the suffering of the individuals who are mistreated in this way. The loss of our own humanity is part of the collateral damage we create.

In acting as the kind of people who attempt to obliterate the humanity of others to protect our own “security”, we make ourselves into the very figures we fear. We become people who understand violence and cruelty as necessary and justifiable, even when the victims are helpless to do any further harm, and even when we doubt whether they did any harm in the first place.

When Herman Wallace died on October 4th, he was finally, truly set free. But what of the rest of us? What kind of people have we become?

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