Transforming Justice: jackie sumell
Inspired by New Orleans-based artist jackie sumell’s years-long collaboration with political prisoner Herman Wallace, Solitary Gardens is a series of cell-sized garden beds designed by the artist with individuals incarcerated in solitary confinement. During her 2017 A Blade of Grass-David Rockefeller Fund Joint Fellow in Criminal Justice, she created a mobile classroom for prison abolition.
[ Birds chirping ]
Sumell: I spent 12 years working with Herman Wallace
on a project called "The House that Herman Built,"
where, in collaboration,
this man who spent 41 years in solitary confinement and myself
designed a dream home with the intention of building it.
When I asked him what kind of house
does a man who's spent 30
and then 41 years in solitary confinement dream of?
And the first thing he asked for were gardens.
Herman's history is very complex.
He was a wrongfully convicted Black Panther political prisoner
who spent four decades in solitary.
He was released from prison and died three days later.
And so in a lot of ways, to continue Herman's legacy,
I need to grow things --
hope and possibility and promise.
That's the birth of this project.
How you doing?
[ Speaks indistinctly ]
-Hello. -How was that bus ride?
[ Indistinct conversations ]
What's this? Wood.
What does it look like? If you stand back,
what does this look like? A prison cell.
These garden beds are the same size and blueprint
as traditional solitary cells.
This is the desk.
This would be the bed where these guys are standing.
Right back here is the toilet.
So sometimes folks are kept in solitary confinement
in a cell that's this big for...
How old are you guys?
So sometimes they're kept in these cells
for 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 years.
This project requires us to write --
to have these written exchanges with folks
who are in solitary confinement, who designed this garden bed.
And you could see he's got three different kinds of plants
in his garden bed.
And so the only place that we can grow plants
is where the human being can move
because the bed, the desk, the table,
the toilet are all cemented into the walls.
Where the sink at?
It's in the back of the toilet.
[ Kids groan ]
I don't want to drink from that.
They treat human beings like that?
What do they drink?
Sumell: It's a terrible idea.
They treat human beings like that.
What do they drink?
And the idea that there's like 80,000
to 100,000 men, women, and children
who are kept in indefinite solitary confinement
in the colonized United States,
which means a minimum of 23 hours a day,
you're in a cage. It's crazy.
That's a crazy notion of justice.
Okoth: Solitary confinement seems to be
the most extreme form of punishment
within an already extremely punitive system,
like no judge or jury assigns someone to solitary confinement.
It's completely at the discretion of prison officials.
So people are getting put in solitary
because they're pregnant or they're queer
or they're the youngest person in the population,
or they have a disability
and they're not fitting in with the rest of the population.
It's otherizing within a system
that's already, like, for the other in society.
Sumell: To be able to share that with as many people as possible
is really the intention of the Solitary Gardens.
And so I'm gonna be driving the garden beds around
and setting them up with volunteer and host institutions
with this prison abolitionist vehicle called the Garrison.
The garrison is a nod to the great abolitionist
William Lloyd Garrison.
Word garrison is also a verb,
which means to station troops.
Some ways we're like nodding to this abolitionist history,
but then also stationing ideas.
We're stationing, like, possibility.
We're in these spaces that are deeply and directly affected
by mass incarceration
to provide an alternative.
Okoth: Living in Louisiana, living in New Orleans,
you really see how incarceration touches
every piece and person in society,
and the state incarcerates more people per capita
than any other state or country on the entire planet.
We build this prison cell turned garden bed.
We're building it out of the byproducts of sugar cane,
cotton, tobacco, and indigo,
the largest chattel slave crops.
Bechet: With this project, they're seeing the connection
and understanding what the means of cotton,
indigo, and sugar mean to us,
particularly as black people, understanding,
you know, what this stuff really looks like,
it feels like, and the tangible evidence of it.
Sumell: And so it's been this process,
which is also transformative, of taking
and literally growing these plants on site
and then grinding them down and adding them to this aggregate
and then building these garden beds together.
And my intention is to -- it's poetic, right? --
it's to illustrate the evolution of chattel slavery
into mass incarceration.
And within that is that story,
which, you know, sometimes if you're too didactic,
people don't want to -- don't want to even talk about it.
But I think as an artist, you have a responsibility
to, like, seduce and destroy.
Once the garden bed is built,
we will grow food and flowers and plants
that somebody who's in solitary confinement
is asking us to grow for them.
And then what happens is those host institutions
will be in correspondence with a solitary gardener,
either someone they already knew or someone we pair them with.
And so they will, for the course of at least two growing seasons,
be growing whatever plants those gardeners want.
The Solitary Gardens in a lot of ways become portraits
of those who are buried furthest
within our carceral institutions, right?
Those that we are told to most forget
are then most remembered and brought to the surface
and brought to public arenas.
Okoth: Honeysuckle was along the fence
where I used to catch the school bus at.
It provided a sweet smell for me to begin my day with.
Sometimes we pluck the flowers and suck the honey out.
Sunflowers grew in the field behind the house I grew up.
We would catch grasshoppers on them
so we could go fishing with them.
That was a favorite pastime of mine
as a kid.
Marigold reminds me to go to the sun,
how it shines bright every day somewhere,
whether we see it or not.
Having been locked up so long,
I often drift over the wires
with my thoughts to visit better days.
Summers are times we plant our own watermelon
and cantaloupe from the seeds, from the fruit itself.
It was a sense of accomplishment and a sweet treat.
All the best, Dennis."
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