For the last four years, a group of men are creating art as part of a program run by Robin Paris and Tom Williams, teachers at Nashville’s Watkins College of Art, Design and Film. They have exhibited the art work at galleries in Tennessee and New York, garnering publicity from news outlets drawn to the lurid stories behind the art: these artists are confined to Unit Two at Riverbend, Tennessee’s death row.

Art programs like this take place in prisons all across the United States, justified on the grounds of their rehabilitative virtues and therapeutic benefits. There are studies linking participation in such classes to improved educational outcomes and reduced recidivism rates. But these findings don’t apply to the Riverbend program, because these men are unlikely to re-enter society. Inmates on death row seldom do. Paris and Williams conduct the workshops – paying all the costs out of their own pockets – because they believe that all people have a right to self-expression. Even those sentenced to death.

Through the classes, the men have formed a sort of collective, exchanging books and supplies, collaborating on works, and exhibiting their art together. Each man is committed to art in a serious way: to making it, and learning about it, but most of all, to using it as a way of communicating with a society that has declared him unworthy to live. The work offends people: victim advocates criticize their exhibitions, questioning whether it is ethical to give these men a public platform. Even the teachers sometimes struggle to justify their work. But the men stand by their art because it signifies that they still have something to contribute to the world.

Gain a closer look about art in prisons by Jeremy Olds at The Marshall Project