Solitary Garden


Writer Albert Woodfox and Artist jackie sumell

Can a garden promote empathy and understanding?

This season, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center collaborates with New Orleans artist jackie sumell to unveil Solitary Garden in honor of Albert Woodfox and his memoir Solitary. This garden is a work of art, conceived by sumell, as a solitary confinement cell (6’ x 9’)—the same shape and size as the cell in which Woodfox was imprisoned for 43 years.

Sumell’s Solitary Garden is built from the largest chattel slave crops of the 19th-century South—sugarcane, cotton, indigo, and tobacco—mixed with lime from a historic Connecticut mine. By design, this revolutionary mortar connects our immoral and violent past to today’s systems of incarceration and captivity. The plants relate to Harriet Beecher Stowe herself—flowers from her historic garden or from her description of those growing around Tom’s cabin in her famous anti-slavery novel published in 1852. Additional plants are medicinal and healing in nature.The artwork expresses confinement as well as hope, love, and imagination—all things that helped Albert Woodfox triumph over unimaginable conditions and harm.

The Stowe Center honors Albert Woodfox with the 2020 Stowe Prize award for Solitary, his memoir about the four decades he spent in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. Solitary is set largely in Angola, Louisiana’s infamous prison on the historic grounds of the state’s largest 19th-century plantation. The pain and suffering Woodfox expresses in Solitary stands alongside his survival, his spirit, and strength of character nourished by the powerful acts of reading and writing. Woodfox writes, “solitary confinement is the most cruel form of torture.”

The Solitary Garden is about re-envisioning prison too. Artist jackie sumell uses art installation to advocate for a cultural conversation that moves from punishment to rehabilitation. The garden is conceived to raise awareness and to create empathy with the hope that participants will be inspired to create positive change.


If you are inspired, engage, contemplate, create, and get involved:

  • Carefully enter the garden and sit or lie on the bed form. Daydream. Imagine life in solitary. Check in with your emotions and your empathy for those who live alone in this small space. Ask yourself to envision a more just and equitable world.
  • Consider your own definitions of social and physical isolation. Has the COVID-19 pandemic made you think about the effect of confinement and isolation on the human spirit? Does Albert Woodfox’s experience of decades in solitary confinement change your understanding of our prison systems and its goals?  Ask yourself, and others, does solitary confinement solve, or contribute to, societal problems?
  • Imagine concrete walls and metal doors. Compare your imagination to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house and garden and the presence of sky and flowers in the Solitary Garden.
  • Write a letter of empathy, hope, encouragement, and positivity to an incarcerated person. The Prison Correspondence Project is a great place to start.
  • Write a letter of empathy, hope, encouragement, and positivity to a senior citizen or immune-compromised person who is in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Love for the Elderly and Letters Against Isolation will get your letters to people who need them.
  • Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture and inhuman treatment by most activists and mental health practitioners. Did your visit to the Solitary Garden inspire you to help end this practice? If your answer is yes, visit Stop Solitary:  Connecticut and the ACLU to learn more about this social justice issue.
  • Angela Davis writes, “Mass incarceration is not a solution to unemployment, nor is it a solution to the vast array of social problems that are hidden away in a rapidly growing network of prisons and jails.” Davis encourages us to imagine tax dollars used for prison being redirected to basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom to make communities secure. Angela Davis formed Critical Resistance, a national organization with local chapters, to build an international movement to challenge the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.
  • Community Partners in Action (CPA) is an important service provider in our region advocating for criminal justice reform. CPA’s team works to address employment, basic needs, and recovery services work to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety — all at a fraction of the cost of prison. You can volunteer for CPA.