Faces of formerly incarcerated adorn downtown Philly building

The Municipal Services Building in the heart of Philadelphia now features 40-foot painted portraits of formerly incarcerated people in its windows.

The large, ground-floor windows ringing the building at JFK and Broad streets been painted to resemble a brick wall, with 17 portraits of men and women who once spent time in jail.

The images, created by formerly incarcerated artists Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig, comprise “Portraits of Justice,” part of a monthlong, multi-pronged campaign by Mural Arts Philadelphia to create a public dialogue on the criminal justice system and issues surrounding returning citizens.

The bricks in the mural will each be erased and replaced with thoughts from the public about how to reduce incarceration rates and keep ex-offenders from falling back into crime.

Mayor Jim Kenney removed the first brick in the wall – so to speak – and wrote “employment training.” In 2015 he vowed to significantly reduce the number of people in county jail.

“As I stand before you today, we have met this target a year ahead of schedule to cut the jail population by 34 percent over three years,” he said Wednesday at the unveiling of the mural. “We have cut the jail population 37 percent since 2015.”

While the giant portraits on the windows of the building can be difficult to see from the outside during the day — the paint used does a poor job of reflecting light — the images backlit by the sun are much more striking to visitors and city workers inside the building.

At night, the lighting will be reversed. The interior lights of the lobby will make the faces glow over Thomas Paine Plaza and the surrounding LOVE and Dilworth parks.

The Municipal Services Building houses the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner, who will encounter those coming to and from work.

“I think it’s just one more example of the incredible work that many different agencies are doing in this city to bring about criminal justice reform and view individuals who come into contact with the law as being redeemable,” he said. “As being people who have something of value to offer.”

“Portraits of Justice” will also feature weekly performances and talks by five formerly incarcerated writers and musicians who have gotten grants for creative pursuits through the Reimagining Reentry Fellowship. It begins Friday evening with poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, and continue each subsequent Thursday evening, with theater artist Shontina Vernon Oct. 11 and writer Sue Ellen Allen Oct. 18.

Another Reimagining Reentry fellow, Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, will appear Oct. 25.  She entered Riverside Correctional Facility while pregnant and gave birth to her son while shackled to a bed.

“There was a debate at the prison whether they would deliver my baby there. But the doctor refused,” she said. “They sent me out to Einstein Hospital where I endured 43 hours of being handcuffed to a bed.”

Baxter’s music and video performance is a multimedia triptych, describing her experiences before, during, and after incarceration.

The fifth fellow, Luis Suave Gonzalez, will appear Nov. 2 at a public symposium on overhauling the criminal justice system.

Gonzalez was sentenced to life in prison for homicide when he was 17 and spent 33 years behind bars. He was released last year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that minors sentenced to life could be resentenced. Gonzalez was sentenced to time served, and he now writes and speaks about mass incarceration. He will be the featured speaker at the “Portraits of Justice” symposium.

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