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.”