Cells are places of confinement, forcibly entered by convicted felons and voluntarily embraced by monks and cloistered nuns. In both environments, transformation of soul can occur, comparable to the work of medieval alchemists in their sequestered laboratories around the world.

This is a story of such a transformation.

Last week, news of a seventy-one year old indigent black man, known as “Angola # 3,” hit the Internet. Convicted of armed robbery in 1970, he was sentenced to fifty years in the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, euphemistically called “The Farm,” the most brutal prison in the South. Eighteen months later, he and two others were again convicted of killing a prison guard and placed in solitary confinement, his 3-foot by six-foot cell for the next forty years.

Each day he ate three meals with two slices of bread, slept upon a concrete slab, and endured freezing winters and scorching summers. Upon his court-ordered release, October 1, 2013, he was transferred, by ambulance, to the New Orleans home of the Program Manager of Tulane School of Medicine. Three days later he died of liver cancer, surrounded by his sister’s family, his lawyer, and many friends.

Everyone remarked on the joy and serenity of Herman Wallace, conscious until his last breath.

 

 

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At times, our own “cells” of life come flying at us, losses of every stripe, both freezing and scorching us to the core. None are free from them. All demand our entrance and participation in the ensuing turmoil until wrung out on the other side. And with Herman, we exclaim in his last words, “I am free! I am free!” until entrapped in the next “cell.”

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