Opening the Box: Sarah Shourd on Herman Wallace, California Hunger Strikers and the Horror of Solitary Confinement

10:51 am in Uncategorized by Angola 3 News

(View new photo of Herman Wallace without leg irons, using an exercise bike, following his recent transfer from solitary confinement. Herman wanted to show supporters he is fighting to survive.)

Opening the Box: Sarah Shourd on Herman Wallace, California Hunger Strikers and the Horror of Solitary Confinement

By Angola 3 News

Who is Herman Wallace? .com
Last month, we were devastated to learn that the Angola 3’s Herman Wallace had been diagnosed with liver cancer, and that he was continuing to be held in isolation in a locked room at Hunt Correctional Center’s prison infirmary. Reflecting on his confinement while battling cancer, Herman said: “My own body has now become a tool of torture against me.”

On July 10, Amnesty International launched a campaign directed at Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, calling for Herman’s immediate release on humanitarian grounds (take action here). “After decades of cruel conditions and a conviction that continues to be challenged by the courts, he should be released immediately to his family so that he can be cared for humanely during his last months,” said Amnesty USA campaigner Tessa Murphy.
In recent years, Amnesty has initiated other campaigns challenging the over 41 years spent in solitary confinement by Herman and Albert Woodfox, also of the Angola 3, including the April 17, 2012 delivery of a 67,000 signature petition to LA Governor Jindal demanding Albert and Herman’s immediate release from solitary. Earlier this year, Amnesty called on Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell to not appeal the US District Court’s overturning of Albert’s conviction. More recently, accompanying their call for Herman’s release, Amnesty also expressed concern about “the worsening conditions of confinement” for Albert at David Wade Correctional Center, where he remains in solitary confinement. “For approximately two months, Woodfox has been subjected to additional punitive measures – including strip searches each time he leaves or enters his cell, being escorted in ankle and wrist restraints, restricted phone access, and non-contact visits through a perforated metal screen. Temperatures in the prison cells are reportedly extremely high, regularly reaching up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit,” wrote Amnesty.

Public outrage intensified on Friday, July 12, when a letter citing the Angola 3 case, was sent to the Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), Ranking Member of the full U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-La.). The letter called for an investigation of the Louisiana Departments of Corrections for its “abysmal history of protecting the rights of its prisoners,” of which the “tragic story of the Angola 3 is a case in point.”

About Herman Wallace, the Congressmen wrote: “We have heard that he lost over 50 pounds within 6 months.  Despite that dramatic weight loss, and at 72 years old, the prison did nothing to treat or diagnose him until he was sent to an emergency room on June 14.   Given the late stage of his diagnosis, his treatment options are now limited.  He is frail and ill, but is still being treated as if he is a threat to security, and we hear that he remains under lockdown conditions. This is unconscionable.”

Within hours of the letter’s release, Herman Wallace was transferred out of solitary confinement, when Louisiana’s Hunt prison reduced his classification from maximum to medium security. Herman is now staying at the prison hospital in a 10-bunk dorm, with access to a day room, and does not have to wear leg irons anymore. While celebrating the more human conditions, Herman and the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 emphasize that the transfer from solitary is not enough. They are asking folks to continue supporting Amnesty International’s call for humane release. The Angola 3’s Robert H. King, himself released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement, says, “The wind is at our back and with your continued help our objective will be realized – freedom is in sight.”

The case of the Angola 3 is at the center of a 42-day fundraising drive begun for a touring play, entitled Opening the Box, that will focus on the use of prolonged solitary confinement in US prisons. The choice of fundraising for 42 days is a tribute to the almost 42 years spent in solitary by Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. The writer and producer of Opening the Box, Sarah Shourd, is herself a survivor, having spent 410 days in solitary confinement while held as a political hostage by the Iranian Government from 2009-2010. After returning to the US, she successfully fought for the release of her now-husband Shane Bauer and friend Josh Fatal.

Conceived specifically “to add to the momentum of a burgeoning movement” against solitary, Shourd will be working with Solitary Watch to “collect real stories from a diverse spectrum of people living in solitary confinement today–immigrants, children, lifers and women. Then, I’m going to write a play about it and go on tour.”

“While watching this play, I want the audience to breathe along with a young man having a panic attack after being denied a visit with his mother, to crawl inside the skin of an immigrant detainee terrified of being deported and to travel with a lifer on a magic carpet of memory–only to be pulled back into the stark, implacable reality of the hole. By hearing these stories, my hope is that the audience will be able to relate to the men and women enduring this torture in our prisons, to their pain but also to their resistance to the dehumanizing forces around them, their incredible resilience…and their refusal to be institutionalized,” explains Shourd.

In this interview, which Shourd dedicates to Herman Wallace, we take a closer look at her project, Opening the Box, as well as the ongoing prisoner hunger strike in California, the Angola 3 case, and the politics of prisons in the US. Currently based in Oakland, California, Shourd is an author and Contributing Editor at Solitary Watch. Before being captured by the Iranian government, Shourd was living in a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria, working as a journalist and teaching for the Iraqi Student Project. She’s written for The New York Times, CNN, Newsweek’s Daily Beast and has a blog on Huffington Post. Her memoir (co-authored by Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal) will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2014. To learn more visit sarahshourd.com and/or follow her on Twiiter @SShourd.

Angola 3 News:         Why did you choose to spotlight the case of the Angola 3 with 42 days of fundraising?
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