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A Green New Deal. Medicare for All. Abolitionism. These are ideas that in recent years have slowly—at times slower than necessary—but surely, crept into the American lexicon and remained. They're ideas that revolve around the concept of universal equity, of a fighting chance of obtaining the faraway ethos that civil rights pioneers of yesteryear worked to enact for all.
Last week was Abolition Week at Scalawag. During Realizing Abolition, an online event marking the occasion and centering formerly incarcerated women, jackie sumell, a multidisciplinary artist and activist and the founder of Solitary Gardens in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, discussed how her project employs the natural world in the effort of prison abolition. The project works with incarcerated people to design gardens, turning solitary confinement cells into flower and vegetable beds. These abolitionist installations are the exact size and blue-print of the cell that Herman Wallace of the Angola Three spent 41 years in on a wrongful conviction.
It's a powerful conversation, y'all.
jackie summell: First, I just want to thank everyone who put this conference together and just acknowledge the value of dreaming beyond the systems of punishment that we've become unnerved with, in both intimate, public, and institutional settings. I've spent the last 20 or so years of my life moving in and out of prisons, jails, and detention centers, working with folks serving their sentences in long term solitary confinement, most notably my elders [Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King]. So, all of my personal and political orientation comes from their great tutelage, their patience, and their love. Without them, I would not have opportunities like this to speak publicly.
Some of you might know Herman Wallace spent 41 years in solitary confinement here in the state of Louisiana. That is 41 years in a six-foot by nine-foot cell, a minimum of 23 hours a day. A lot of the information that I received—and was gifted, was challenged by, and organized around—these ideas of abolition were nurtured in the setting of Angola Prison here in the state of Louisiana. Herman and I spent about 12 years collaborating on a project called The House That Herman Built, where he was designing his dream home from inside isolation. I sort of translated those visions into an exhibition, a book, and a documentary film was eventually made about it…
After 41 years of solitary confinement and wrongful conviction, Herman Wallace was released on October 1, 2013, and he joined the ancestors just three days later.
As an abolitionist practice, I'm going to ask all of us not to let the tragedy eclipse the absolute miracle, but to hold those opposing truths at the same time or cultivate the ability to do so. Herman Wallace died free, surrounded by those of us who loved him most, innocent in the eyes of the law. And that holds as much space as the tragedy of three days of physical freedom.
After he ascended, I had 12 years of letters that I had shared with him, that I saw with very new eyes—the eyes of grief, the eyes of disorientation. I realized how much this man talked about gardens from inside solitary confinement. So, in fact, when I asked him what kind of house does a man who's lived in a six-foot by nine-foot cell for 30 years dream of, he said, "I can clearly see the gardens. They will be full of gloxinia, delphiniums, and roses. I wish for guests to be able to smile and walk through gardens all year round."
So, I knew there was some way to uphold the life and feat of such a remarkable human doing, while continuing to illustrate the inhumanity of solitary confinement by using gardens and gardening. The Solitary Gardens do just that; They take this six-by-nine prison cell, they cut a slice of it, and grow gardens that are in collaboration with folks who are still inside. So, incarcerated individuals are actually growing the contents of these prison cells-turned-garden beds. There's about 19 of them around the country. They're made out of organic materials intentionally, with the possibility of changing over time. Again, an abolitionist tenet is to believe that we invest in change more than we invest in the identities of rigidity or permanence, like concrete and steel, or like the carceral institutions of today do.
See also: Whispers of Freedom
Each of those six by nine solitary gardens maintain the same blueprint as a standard U.S. solitary cell. You can see the bed, the toilet sink, the desk, and the bench. Again, gardened remotely by solitary gardeners. But what I think is remarkable about this project—many things are—is that the garden beds themselves are made out of sugarcane, cotton, and tobacco, so the largest chattel slave crops build the walls of these prison cells-turned-garden beds, illustrating the evolution of chattel slavery into mass incarceration, or our habit in the colonized United States of renaming modalities of torture.
We look at drawings from folks who are inside, and really translate their visions into the ground, into the garden. So, this is a real time experience of transcending the human constructs of prisons, jails, and detention centers. And in many ways, the gardens then become portraits of those who are condemned to the arguably most torturous modalities of our complicity in systems of punishment and control.
This project, as you can imagine, has grown many, many, many offshoots. But most notably, we have had just an abundance of plants, particularly here in New Orleans, and one of those offshoots is the Prisoner's Apothecary. So, folks inside are working with herbalists and other herbally-adjacent folks on the outside to design garden beds that would grow plant medicine that is designed to heal the communities that are often accused of harming, transcending American perceptions of restitution, criminality, and redemption. We've been making teas, tinctures, savs, and other things, grown in collaboration with incarcerated individuals, and then creating these outward facing presentations, like the prisoners' apothe-carts. The idea is that we can deploy multiple herbal medicine carts here in New Orleans that are seeding possibility through storytelling, plant sharing, aimed at abolition, aimed at solutions for a more humane, equitable, and just society. They've been on hold, like many things, because of COVID-19; New Orleans just reopened. So, we're really excited to launch these carts, which I am hoping will catalyze public conversations at the intersection of healthcare, mutual aid, and abolition.
The larger version of this is the apothecary where I, through the help of Creative Capital, transformed this van, or retrofitted the van, to drive the apothecary around the country in collaboration with various organizations and herbalists—Hopefully [with] those like Growing Change who are already having these public facing conversations, where we look at the criminal punishment system, and the ways that the criminal punishment system has failed humans as much as the planet. So, part of this abolitionist lens is really asking us what can we learn from the plants that teach us to be better people, better humans? And how does nature advocate strategies of abolition?
That question really feeds into the smallest version of this conversation, which is the Abolitionist Field Guide, which really teaches us about abolitionist strategy through the lived experiences of the natural world and their relationships––some of those are stories or teachings or direct perceptions, sometimes their metaphors. I would argue that abolition, much like growing a plant, requires daily attention and care. Much like love, hope, and compassion, social equity, like a garden, needs practice, time, and nurturing to fully blossom.
I'll finish just with the introduction of the Prisoners' Apothecary Cafe, which is in real time working as a diversion program here in New Orleans. [We've been working] to create a diversion program that catalyzes the Solitary Gardens, the Prisoners' Apothecary, and creates a cafe that is plant-based and that offers healing teas, tinctures, and snowballs to folks that may just pass it by. So, I'd like to finish here with a quote that I often refer to, by Buckminster Fuller: "I believe it is true that you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, you must build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
And I hope, at some point, we can collectively make prisons obsolete.