Project Empathy

Experience what it’s like to be in prison with this virtual reality film series

via Kristyna Archer

A middle-aged black man sits in a room, facing you. With long, thick dreads framing his solemn face, he tells you the story of how he came to spend 19 years in prison on charges of second-degree murder. It all started when he ran away from an abusive home at 14 years old.

“I found myself being seduced into what we now know as the crack cocaine trade,” Shaka Senghor says in “The Letter,” a mini-doc that’s part of a virtual reality film series called Project Empathy.

Three years later, at 17, Senghor was shot three times and began carrying a gun for protection. “I felt myself getting closer to the moment when I would eventually pull the trigger, and 16 months later, that’s what happened,” adds Senghor, now a bestselling author, TED speaker, and cofounder of nonprofit Beyond Prisons.

From there, the 4-minute film takes you to key parts of Senghor’s journey through America’s prison system: the street corner where he was shot, a solitary confinement cell similar to the one in which he spent seven years, and later, the suburban porch where he sits with his son after being released a changed man.

Project Empathy, which bills itself as the “first virtual reality series for social impact,” enables viewers to experience the U.S. prison system through the eyes of people who’ve been affected first-hand. By tackling real-life issues through an immersive 3D, 360-degree experience, it aims to educate Americans about the system’s harsh realities, and ultimately make a meaningful push for reform.

“If we can create empathy for those that are most difficult to create empathy for, then we know that we are building a model that can be effective across all types of issues,” Jamie Wong, creator of Project Empathy, told me. “We really wanted to start in the place where we see the biggest need, and also where we saw the biggest challenge.”

So far, two films in the series have been completed, with two more in the pipeline. “The Letter” is Project Empathy’s only documentary-style film, while the others are fictionalized, scripted stories. “Left Behind,” the first scripted film, debuted Thursday at the The Atlantic’s “Race + Justice” Summit in Los Angeles. It looks at children who grow up with an incarcerated parent, and explores the sense of abandonment they feel as a result.

“In ‘Left Behind,’ you yourself are in the shoes of a 9-year-old girl. You see your mother who’s arrested. There’s the people who arrest her. There’s other children in the foster home. There are moms in the park. You go to a visitation center to visit her,” Wong explained. “It’s an incredibly ubiquitous experience, unfortunately.”

Producers interviewed dozens of people during the film’s research process, including inmates, their children, prison staff, and police officers. “We used that as the jumping off point for developing these scripts,” Wong said. Although the film is fictional, it’s based on a true-to-life “composite” of the interviews, she added.

In a 2010 report, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 1.7 million children in the U.S. have at least one parent in state or federal prison—a number that’s been rising steadily since the early 1990s. Another, more recent, Rutgers University study from 2014 reported that more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent, which translates to 1 in 28 children nationwide. Black children are hardest hit, at 11.4% (1 in 9), followed by Latinx children at 3.5% (1 in 28), and white children at 1.8% (1 in 57).

What’s more, a Central Connecticut State University study published last year found that children with incarcerated parents are three times more likely than those without incarcerated parents to be “involved”—that is, arrested, convicted, or incarcerated—in the justice system themselves.

Screenshot from "Left Behind."Courtesy of Benefit Studios

Screenshot from "Left Behind."

In addition to “Left Behind,” at least two more scripted films in the series are coming: Filmmaker Alex Rivera, whose work tends to focus on immigration and labor issues, is writing and directing one; Nonny De La Peña, a pioneer in immersive journalism whose widely praised projects portray the brutality of Syria’s civil war and homelessness in Los Angeles, is tackling the other.

“The conflicts we see tearing this country apart are rooted in one thing: a profound lack of empathy between people who live in overly incarcerated communities and those who don’t,” Van Jones, who partnered with Wong to create Empathy Project, said in a statement. “Some people call it bigotry or bias or racism, but I choose to call it a lack of empathy, and we have tools that can fix that. Virtual reality is one of the most powerful.”

Viewers will need a VR headset (e.g. Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, or HTC Vive) to watch Project Empathy films. “The Letter” is available now for free on Hindsight VR, Littlstar, and VRideo. Other virtual reality projects have taken viewers to far-flung places, including the hermit nation of North Korea and the make-believe settings of your favorite cartoons.

By using virtual reality to create a scripted series that focuses on real-life issues, Project Empathy is much like a modern-day The Jungle, journalist Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking 1906 novel exposing the unsanitary conditions of America’s meatpacking industry.

“What we’re getting at here, and where the medium really has potential and is exciting, is that we’re telling an emotional truth,” Wong said. “It’s a huge experiment, so we’ll see.”