Come Sit in My Cell on Death Row: A Lesson in Empathy Through Art

My sister sent me a slideshow of an artist who re-created the last meals of prisoners before they were executed.

Now, you could have presented a well-organized argument about how capital punishment is cruel, inhumane, unjust, whatever. Guess what? My eyes would have glazed over. 

If you told me to imagine myself as a prisoner on death row, and asked, how would you feel? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. It’s too far from my current life.

Yet here I am, looking at a plate of food as the prisoner would have seen it.

I get to choose what to eat, but I’m eating by myself. I can’t reach my arm over and take a bite of your spaghetti. I can’t tell you about my day and how the food is either on par or overrated.

And those French fries. Are there any extra-crispy fries at the bottom of the container — the ones that are tiny and brittle and transparent with oil — and if so, would I want to hand them to my sister because those are her favorite?

I’m looking at this plate and I feel scared because holy crap, this is it. This is the last plate I will ever look at.

You know what else? I like ice cream too. If you had tried telling me that I had something in common with a man that murdered a 37-year old woman, I would have said that you were crazy.

Now I’m curious about what the murderer was like, despite what I said earlier about not wanting to empathize.

Herein lies the power of art: it shows you a different perspective even if you don’t want to see it. It doesn’t force. It cajoles.

Art can show you things that intellect, logic, debate, and analysis can only touch on. Intellect says, “This is sad. You should feel sad.”

But that only goes so far in getting a point across. Then comes art.

Art evokes the sadness in you via music, dance, painting, writing. Through art, you feel the emotion first-hand, and by experiencing it, you gain a deeper, more profound and meaningful understanding of what you thought you already knew. 

Even if you don’t want to know what it feels like to be an inmate, when you look at these photos, you are, for a few minutes, sitting in a damp cell with a fluorescent light humming quietly above you, staring at the last plate of food you’ll ever eat.