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Reader Letters

Dear Diary

Dear editors,

To Danny Gregory’s question (Can watercolors change how you perceive a killer?), I answer yes. Gregory’s drawings will most likely allow most viewers to perceive these flawed human beings—who are the products of a very flawed country—as nothing more than callous idiots. Most Americans know very little about our country’s prison system or the inmates that populate it. Accordingly, America has one of the largest prison populations of all “developed” countries. Depicting criminals as stupid cartoon villains isn’t nearly as harmful as actually mistreating them behind bars, shuffling them too quickly through the justice system, or failing to seek out and address the root of their problems (usually poverty, untreated mental illness, or lack of access to social services). Nonetheless, these facile drawings make it too easy to continue casually ignoring the multi-faceted mess that is the American prison system.

I realize Mr. Gregory was aiming to point out the outrageous fact that we give lethal injections to the merely asinine, but his concern can’t ring true when he—in the very same paragraph—flippantly compares death row to graduation day and murder to an extracurricular activity. Thanks for trying, Mr. Gregory, for attempting instructive irony, for making some statement about the arbitrary cruelty of capital punishment, but unfortunately, the overwhelming effect of your drawings is one that allows us to overlook the long story that led to each crime committed by these folks. As someone who has worked one-on-one with American inmates, my response to the drawings is that they are not instructive, thought-provoking or sympathy-inducing. In fact, they’re almost heartless.

Cayce Dumont
Madison, Wis.

Danny Gregory responds:

I appreciate Mr. Dumont’s points. Incarcerated people are treated badly in this flawed country. I also appreciate that there are generally long and complex factors that lead to the commissions of death-row crimes. And I disagree with the death penalty. It is cold and barbaric and probably ineffective as a deterrent.

However, I found that when I read about the crimes behind each of these convictions, hard-boiled as they were down to their unflinching essences, I felt myself grow cold. I found it hard to relate to these people as human beings. Their behavior was alien and pitiless. I painted their portraits under the influence of these stories. The experience forced me out of my box. I could no longer be so unequivocally against their sentence. While my brain was utterly convinced that executing them was horribly wrong, now my gut felt unsure.

In the end, my brain prevails. But as a liberal, I am surprised not to be able to trust my heart. Perhaps Mr. Dumont, immersed as he is in the issue, is comfortable with the clarity of his position. I find myself feeling a lot more ambivalent. That’s why I found the project thought provoking. For me, it went well beyond the American penal system. It’s about labels— those we impose on others and on ourselves seem at the heart of so many problems these days. Now more than ever, the consequences of the positions we take can be so very powerful. The stories of those on death row, the decisions they made, and the horrible consequences seemed a propos. So did my ambivalence about judging them. Of course, the more I feel compelled to explain, the more ambivalent I become.

Danny Gregory

Note: The question at the opening to Danny’s gallery was written by the editor, not by Danny himself.—eds.
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