An Art Project Gives Creative Voice To Prisoners On Death Row

A project out of a Tennessee prison and an art college allows death row inmates to express themselves and experience life outside.

This summer, 11 death row inmates at Tennessee’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution had the chance to experience the outside world through the eyes of local art students. The result is a series of paintings, photographs, drawings and collages that represent the inverse of incarceration: freedom, beauty, altruism, and family. The project was organized by Watkins College of Art professors Robin Paris and Tom Williams to raise awareness about how we treat inmates in this country.


“The more you know about justice in America, the more concerned you get,” Paris said. “The death penalty is so arbitrarily dispensed in this country. And usually it’s because people couldn’t afford a good lawyer.”

The exhibit features collaborative work between the inmates and the artists as well as “surrogate” projects, in which inmates asked the artists to experience–and then create art about–life outside the prison. Paris says the art demonstrates how much the inmates “want to reach out and make a difference” in the world beyond the prison walls. One inmate asked an artist to buy a hamburger for a homeless man. Another inmate asked an artist to reach out to a center for at-risk youth. But for some, their intentions are much broader. “They want to reform how people are being incarcerated on mass scale,” said Williams.

The work also serves to humanize a population, which, to a man, has been convicted of murder. “They want other people to learn from their situations and not end up like them,” Williams said. Paris added that the art work helps people understand the fine line that exists between a life filled with economic and social opportunities and a life of violence and depravation that can lead people to commit crimes.

The exhibit is titled Unit 2 (part 1) after the part of the prison where death row inmates live and is currently on display at the Coop Gallery in Nashville.

About the author

Jennifer Miller is the author of The Year of the Gadfly (Harcourt, 2012) and Inheriting The Holy Land (Ballantine, 2005). She's a regular contributor to Co.Create.