By John Sapida

With an estimated 80,000-100,000 prisoners currently being held in isolation, solitary confinement has become a key issue in the growing debate about the crumbling criminal justice system in the US. The use of solitary confinement was originally intended to be a form of rehabilitation and  a chance for a prisoner to “think about their actions.” However, solitary confinement quickly proved to be a damaging practice and, many prisoners developed psychological problems after remaining isolated for 22-24 hours a day – for periods that could range from days to decades.  According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), some of the mental and psychological problems associated with prolonged solitary confinement include anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, depression, hallucinations, social withdrawal, nervous breakdowns, and self-harm. These problems often persist during and after solitary confinement and may have permanent implications for the individual’s future. The staggering number of inmates held in isolation and the health issues that are associated with solitary confinement are the root of the national and international communities’ frustration and advocacy efforts to ban the practice as a form of torture and “cruel and unusual punishment”.

Herman Wallace spent 41 years in solitary confinement in a 6ft by 9ft cell during his time at the infamous Louisiana State Correctional Facility in Angola, LA (commonly referred to as simply “Angola”). To shed light on Wallace’s life as a prisoner, an activist, and a human being, the National Film Board of Canada recently released a new interactive documentary, The Deeper They Bury Me: A Call From Herman Wallace. The project utilizes video game technology to send viewers on a 20-minute journey – the time permitted for a prison phone call – through illustrations, graphics, and conversations with Wallace about his life in solitary confinement, his relationship with others in the facility, and his dreams beyond the walls of Angola. This interactive documentary builds off the stories and concepts that were explored in the 2013 award-winning documentary, Herman’s House. WITNESS spoke with Angad Singh Bhalla, the director of both Herman’s House and The Deeper They Bury Me to learn more about the project.

WITNESS: Let’s start with some background on Herman and the project. For those who may not know, who is Herman Wallace? Did the documentary Herman’s House play a large role in helping you direct this project? How long did the project take to complete?

Angad Singh Bhalla: Herman Wallace was a Black Panther activist who, along with Albert Woodfox and Robert King, organized for better conditions within Louisiana’s Angola prison. In 1972, he and Albert were framed for the murder of a prison guard and placed in solitary confinement. Herman remained in solitary until his release in 2013 and Albert remains there today, making them two of the longest-serving solitary confinement prisoners in US history.

The documentary Herman’s House was very much the impetus for the digital interactive project The Deeper They Bury Me. While making the film, there were so many enlightening thoughts from Herman on his unique experience that just could not fit into the linear narrative of a film. I wanted to give audiences the opportunity that I had had to hear directly from Herman and enter his world virtually, so to speak.

This interactive project took approximately four years to complete, and in some ways we benefited from that, as crucial developments in Herman’s life—like his release from prison, which occurred after the film’s release—could be included in The Deeper They Bury Me.

Why did you choose to represent Herman Wallace’s story? What was so special about his story, or the setting of his story, that it inspired this project?

Though Herman’s situation is unique, America’s practice of using prisons and harsh forms of punishment to solve social problems is not. By focusing on Herman’s cell as the primary tool for his oppression, in many ways, Herman could be serving his sentence in any detention facility in the country. In one sense, solitary confinement is the essence of the modern American prison: it both entirely hides and brutally punishes those that society has deemed unfit. The pretense offered by the departments of “corrections” also completely disappears when it comes to solitary confinement. Highlighting this brutal practice exposes the core hypocrisy of the American penal system, which claims to rehabilitate offenders while it, in effect, dehumanizes people.

Herman’s art project with Jackie Sumell, The House That Herman Built, also inspired me in so many ways. It brings lightness, art and humanity to this dehumanizing prison system and allows viewers to access this world in such a creative way.

Finally, Herman is also an American political prisoner, and despite the fact that a number of people have been incarcerated for their political activism in the US, we do not talk enough about these political prisoners. Given the ongoing criminalization of dissent that we see with the police response to Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movements, I think it’s essential that we both learn from and put these in the correct historical context. Imprisoning people for resisting oppression is nothing new in this country, and we need to understand that history to end this practice.

The use of transmedia storytelling has been growing recently. Why did you decide to contribute this interactive media project to the already existing work on Herman Wallace?

Well, I think having over 50 hours of unheard audio recordings from such an important figure in American history made me want to do something with this rich content. I thought of archiving it in some way, but a transmedia project made a lot of sense because it might actually engage people as opposed to being just for researchers. Further, Herman’s story is so relevant for today’s young activists that I wanted to try to tell it in a form that is more relevant to young people, who communicate so much now online. Finally, I think given that Herman’s story revolves around space, a cell, a dream home, and a prison dorm, an online format would allow people to actually explore these spaces.

What are some of the interactive features of this website that we should expect?

Well, the entire experience is setup to allow the user to determine what aspects of Herman’s life they want to hear him talk about. The user will be able to explore 3D replicas of Herman’s cell, his dream bedroom, and his prison dorm, and choose what they want to hear about, and in what order. The user can go through the site as quickly or as slowly as they want.

What was the idea behind only giving your audience 20 minutes to view the features of the interactive site?

I wanted people to at least get some small idea of what it is actually like for the millions of Americans with a loved one in prison. Your access to that loved one is very limited, whether it’s an in-person visit to a prison deliberately located far from population centers, or a phone call that is both limited in duration and frequency as well as exorbitantly expensive.

Interactive websites not only tell a story, but it also tends to educate viewers. What do you hope your viewers will take away from going through this interactive experience based on Herman Wallace’s story?

I hope viewers understand that history is present. There is a reason that, in the United States, people of color account for nearly 60% of the imprisoned while making up only 30% of the population. There is a reason that one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime and the majority of those will be lacking a high school diploma. There is a reason that, in the US, black Americans are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans. These reasons are not simple and go back to the founding myths of this country, which is why there are more black men under some form of correctional supervision (imprisoned, on parole, or on probation) than were enslaved in 1850.  Herman’s story of resistance and punishment for that resistance is crucial for understanding what we need to do to change the system.

Check out The Deeper the Bury Me: A Call From Herman Wallace

Want more? A video is now available of a panel discussion following the launch of The Deeper They Bury Me at the 2015 New York Film Festival.

Related: The WITNESS Media Lab recently completed a project on police violence in the United States. You can read more about the project here.

John Sapida is a former WITNESS intern and an MA candidate at The New School in New York City.

Featured image – WikiMedia.

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