On October 1, 2016, an inspirational project, focused on drawing attention to the horrors and injustice of solitary confinement, opened in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. “Solitary Gardens,” the most recent project from conceptual artist Jackie Sumell, the woman behind The House that Herman Built, is a park at 2600 Andry Street in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. It features ten garden beds, the same size and blueprints as solitary cells, as well as open spaces for collective study and community support.
Jackie describes her inspiration for the project as coming, “from those who endure the inhuman conditions of solitary confinement. Specifically the gifts I have received from Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King -- men who maintained a commitment to the beauty of humanity while enduring the worst of our punishment-driven collective identity.” Jackie further explains how “solitary confinement has become the go-to method of punishment for otherness -- the untreated mentally ill, the political prisoner, anyone who identifies as LGTBQI -- we want to represent all of these communities.” The project is truly a collaborative effort – community volunteers work with prisoners serving long-term sentences in solitary confinement and survivors of solitary to design and maintain the gardens. Each garden bed is curated by a different incarcerated person and cultivated by members of the community.
Jackie describes how there are general themes running throughout the various garden beds: “the garden beds are made out of organic materials that, unlike prisons, transform over time. As beds mature, the prison architecture is overpowered by plant life, proving that nature—like hope, love, and imagination—will ultimately triumph over the harm humans impose on ourselves and on the planet.” She has been experimenting with a variety of different organic building materials, such as the by-products of sugarcane, cotton, indigo, and tobacco, the largest slave crops during times of chattel slavery. Jackie wanted to, “poetically illustrate the illusion that slavery has been abolished,” while demonstrating that, “chattel slavery evolved into the maps of the Prison Industrial Complex for all those duly convicted of a crime.” Although there is a unifying sense to the project, what is planted in the individual garden beds is left exclusively up to the prisoners. “As a result, the beds are very unique and they become portraits of the incarcerated individual,” Jackie explains. “The garden beds allow the exclusive identity of ‘prisoner’ that is projected onto human beings to expand and we can start to see ‘gardeners’ or, more importantly ‘people’ that are being held in cages. By proxy the garden bed becomes a portrait of those forced to endure the unimaginable.”
The collaboration between the gardeners and the Solitary Gardens team began with a simple written correspondence. The ten incarcerated persons responsible for designing the garden beds were recommended to Jackie by word of mouth. They are serving their time at prisons throughout the country – from Louisiana’s Angola prison to California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.
While there is the hope that in the future the collaboration will be directly between the various volunteer community groups maintaining the gardens and the inmates who designed them, for the time being, the Solitary Gardens team will serve as the liaison between the two. “The effects of solitary confinement on health are grave: paranoia, alienation, atrophied imagination, and dehumanization,” Jackie states, “we want to make sure those folks enduring the inhumane conditions of solitary are not further punished by misunderstood correspondence. So for the first year we will maintain the correspondence relating to the garden while volunteers maintain and document the physical garden bed. If after a year they wish to continue we will connect everyone directly.”
The community groups that are involved with the project are truly a cross-section of the New Orleans community. For Jackie, “the intersectionality of the project is the most exciting part.” Solitary Gardens is currently supported by people of all ages, incomes and genders. The project intentionally spans many different genres: urban garden, sustainability, art, architecture, prison abolition, anti-solitary work, social justice and land use alternatives. The gardens are positioned across the street from the MLK High School and it is Jackie and her team’s hope that the high school will pick up the curriculum, correspondences, and maintenance of Solitary Gardens.
The community’s excitement and interest in the project was evidenced at the unveiling ceremony that took place on October 1st and drew a crowd of over 100 people. The event took place on the 3-year commemoration of Herman Wallace’s freedom -- a day that is sacred to Jackie and many in the advocacy community. The advocates in attendance that day honored Herman by unveiling a huge project, dedicated to his life and legacy. Some of the speakers from the unveiling included Jackie, Albert Woodfox and Malik Rahim. There was also a moving spoken word performance by Vaku.
There is already much work being done on developing the future of Solitary Gardens and where the team can take this inspired vision. From its conception, the project was carefully designed for the garden beds to be easily replicated, with the hope that the gardens could be expanded nation-wide. And now, through the generosity of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and The Nathan Cummings Foundation, Jackie and her team are working towards 50 Solitary Gardens across the country. The team hopes to collaborate with other social justice champions and advocacy groups to find prisoners to cultivate these future garden beds.
Additionally, the EyeBeam-funded Online platform will house prisoners’ stories and volunteers’ experiences, adding an open-source component to the Solitary Gardens curriculum. This exciting new vision is currently being developed by Ron Morrison, Urban Designer and professor at The New School in NYC.
For the time being, while these promising new development are unfolding, interested persons can visit Solitary Gardens at Andry Street, New Orleans, which are free and open to the public. You can also stay connected to the project by joining the Herman’s House mailing list or sending an email to email@example.com. When Jackie and her team are ready to offer Solitary Gardens to a national audience, to either host or sponsor a bed, anyone on the mailing list will be the first to know.