We are excited to celebrate the public launch of The Visiting Room Project (TVRP), which joined Proteus Fund as a fiscally sponsored initiative in 2022. The Visiting Room Project is a “digital experience that invites the public to sit face-to-face with people serving life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) to hear them tell their own stories, in their own words.” TVRP is working with the participants who generously contributed their stories to the project to design a public programming and community engagement plan. These parallel tracks are bringing exhibits, screenings, and collaborations with artists to public spaces, while also prioritizing screenings for individuals in the project and their communities who have been separated for decades by incarceration. TVRP is also building an ambassadors program for those TVRP contributors who are coming home, as well as working on a future iteration of this project that will include interviews with women serving long and life sentences in Louisiana.
TVRP’s mission of creating a platform for those whom the criminal justice system has tried to make invisible, and their focus on shining a light on the disproportionate number of Black men who receive LWOP sentences is in direct alignment with Proteus Fund’s commitment to racial justice and an inclusive, fully representative democracy. We look forward to continuing this partnership to support TVRP’s vital and impactful work.
Beery Adams Jiménez
VP of Fiscal Sponsorship & Grants Management
Paul Di Donato
President & CEO
NEW ORLEANS – Going live to the public on August 8, 2022, The Visiting Room Project is a new digital experience that invites the public to sit face-to-face with people serving life without the possibility of parole, and hear their stories, in their words. More than five years in the making, the site is the only collection of its kind, containing 109 interviews with people filmed while serving life without parole. These stories touch on big and small subjects, including childhood, loved ones, regrets, time in prison, transformative change, hopes for the future, and more.
The Visiting Room Project was created by Marcus Kondkar and Calvin Duncan. Marcus chairs Loyola University New Orleans’ sociology department, researching incarceration and sentencing patterns. Calvin is an expert in post-conviction law. After being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life without parole, Calvin served 28 1/2 years in Louisiana prisons prior to winning his freedom in 2011.
Marcus and Calvin initially conceived a project about life without parole for an academic audience, but once the interview process began, they knew these personal stories of life behind prison walls should reach a broader audience. The result is The Visiting Room Project, a collaborative effort intended for the general public as well as a resource for educators, students, artists, journalists, and more.
“There’s really nothing out there like this,” says Marcus. “It’s very difficult to see or hear from people who are serving life without parole, in part because their sentences make them invisible to the public. Even when we see the data on our nation’s extraordinary use of LWOP, it’s hard to make empathetic connections with the individuals behind that data. I hope the stories in the project will serve to spur more conversations in our communities about how we approach crime and punishment. Once I started talking to folks at Angola, I was struck by how genuine and open they were, and knew the interviews needed to be heard by the general public. What I didn’t expect was the extent to which the videos would generate positive dialogue and new connections in the contributors’ own families and communities. In order to keep these rich conversations going, we’re in the process of scheduling a series of screenings in diverse venues across the country. In this way, we feel The Visiting Room is very much a living project that will continue to offer all kinds of new opportunities for communication, long after the interviews were done filming.”
The Visiting Room Project’s first-ever public screening and contributor panel events will be held in both Washington D.C. and in New Orleans on the evening of Thursday, August 18, 2022. The New Orleans event, staged in partnership with First Grace United Methodist Church, is open to the public, including the friends and family members of the men who contributed their stories. The First Grace Visiting Room screening and panel discussion will be from 6:30 P.M. – 8:30 P.M. CST. Later that evening, Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts also hosts a screening and panel discussion featuring project contributors, beginning at 8:30 P.M. EST.
View the collection of testimonials at: www.visitingroomproject.org
“Even though the guys in the project are unique individuals, they touch on a lot of common themes,” said Calvin Duncan, co-creator. “A majority of the guys interviewed are now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, having been convicted at a very young age. Human experience and brain science tell us that a 55-year-old man is simply not the person he was at age 18. None of us stays the same. And yet, we have this large population of people who will never get a second look, even if they were still kids with developing brains when they came in and have gone through decades of positive change. To me, it’s really powerful to hear them reflect on how they’ve worked to mature and grow while incarcerated. Now, they are leaders in the prison, teaching the young guys coming through how to grow up, and running all the reentry programs. I want everyone to hear what I hear when I go to The Visiting Room Project.”
All of The Visiting Room Project’s interviews were filmed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The majority feature Black men, who disproportionately receive life without parole sentences. Known as “Angola,” the prison is, in many ways, the epicenter of the punishment worldwide. Louisiana uses life without parole at a higher rate than any other state within the U.S., which uses the punishment more than any other nation. There are currently over 55,000 Americans serving life without the possibility of parole.
Arthur Carter, who has served more than 30 years of a life sentence, captured the meaning of The Visiting Room Project during his interview, stating, “If I have to die here, I appreciate this opportunity to be able to let my voice be heard.” As Calvin puts it, “We just want to be seen for who we are.”