Review: Panthers in the Hole by Bruno Cénou and David Cénou

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Louisiana has the highest rate in the United States: 1 out of every 55 adults is behind bars.

The true story of three of these men — Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert King — spurred a movement for prison reform in the United States and inspired French authors and brothers Bruno and David Cénou to write “Panthers in the Hole,” a remarkable documentary comic that shines an unflinching light onto a dark chapter of American history: the abuse of solitary confinement.

Woodfox, Wallace and King, all black, were convicted under dubious circumstances by all-white juries for the 1972 murder of a prison guard. The men were each placed permanently in 20-foot solitary confinement cells, where they stayed for at least 23 hours a day. They lived here uninterrupted from 1972 until their recent release. The men spent more than a combined century in solitary confinement.

“Panthers in the Hole” moves between each of their stories, all told in first person, while also exploring the larger issues of the United States penal system. It’s a fantastic, ambitious achievement that largely succeeds. While text alone would tell the story, the Cénou’s spare black and white drawings allow for a deeper level of connection by putting the conditions and mood on full display. It’s possible to skim text. It’s hard to look away from, or forget, a powerful image.

The complicated story, though, is made more challenging by the shifts in narration throughout the work. But while the book can be difficult to follow at times, the drawings provide a steady hand, keeping the focus on the continuities between the men’s lives in prison: the deplorable conditions, rampant abuse and absence of the natural world.

As King writes in the afterward, he hopes that educating the public through works such as this will create a ripple effect of reform. “Public pressure works,” he writes. “Public opinion matters.” He’s already gained one powerful supporter: the book was produced by Amnesty International.