Student Posts

Solitary Gardens

At the Shaping Justice conference, attorney Kim Keenan stressed the importance of interacting with diverse community voices in the pursuit of social justice, commenting that public interest attorneys are not merely “static intellect.” In fact, some of the most radical solutions to inequity and disadvantage do not come from lawyers at all. This remark got me thinking: what types of people ought lawyers be learning from? 

As an art minor in college, I have learned to recognize visual art as a powerful tool for advancing social justice. So when I came across the work of New Orleans artist Jackie Sumell a few weeks ago, I was instantly moved. Sumell is the founder of Solitary Gardens, a collaborative art project that asks viewers to “imagine a landscape without prisons.” 

As a graduate student at Stanford University, Sumell began a 12-year correspondence with Herman Wallace, a political prisoner at Angola prison in Louisiana. Herman Wallace spent 41 years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. In his 29th year of isolation, Sumell wrote Wallace a letter and posed him an unusual question: “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot box for almost thirty years dream of?” Wallace’s response was surprising: “In the front of the house I have 3 squares of gardens. The gardens are the easiest for me to imagine, and I can see they would be certain to be full of gardenias, carnations and tulips. This is of the utmost importance. I would like for guests to be able to smile and walk through flowers all year long.”

Wallace died of cancer complications 3 days after his release. As a means of preserving his legacy, Sumell began Solitary Gardens. According to the project’s website, Solitary Gardens “turns solitary confinement cells into garden beds…. The beds are ‘gardened’ by prisoners… through written exchanges, growing calendars, and design templates. As the garden beds mature, the prison architecture is overpowered by plant life.” Though based in New Orleans, Sumell and her team travel across the country to build gardens at host institutions and cultivate conversions about more restorative alternatives to incarceration. 

For me, there’s something particularly powerful about seeing growth in spaces where captivity and despair are expected. In stark contrast to solitary confinement, gardening is a uniquely communal practice. In addition, gardening is alsoprofoundly subversive. In claiming these garden beds as their own, the project’s Solitary Gardeners transform their oppressive environments into sources of personal power, preservation, and care. 

I wonder whether a project like this would be possible in Charlottesville. And as a future lawyer, I wonder what else I can learn from artists like Sumell. As an artist approaches her craft, I hope to approach my legal career with radical creativity, collaboration, and openness.

Sarah Anne Pfitzer is a 2L originally from Birmingham, Alabama. During her 1L summer, she interned at the Federal Defender Program’s Capital Habeas Unit in Atlanta, Georgia, where she helped research and write claims for death-sentenced clients. After graduation, she hopes to return to the southeast.

Interests: Criminal Defense, Capital Defense, Prisoner’s Rights, Civil Rights

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