Artwork by recently released prisoners is now on display inside Philadelphia City Hall. The hallways on its second and fourth floors are lined with paintings and sculptures by people who had been in prison — from amateurs wielding felt pens to trained artists with a studio practice.
They are accompanied by posters, manifestos and videos proclaiming what people re-entering society need as they attempt to reinvent their lives outside of prison.
“If you’re doing it by yourself, you stay in your head all the time and keep getting it wrong,” said Richard Lanir, featured in the video “ReEntry Project: Stories About Life After Incarceration” by PhillyCAM, a community media access organization. “I know that the ingredients I used to use, they didn’t work.”
The pieces in “Rethinking Reentry Through Art” are pulled together from several social services organizations for recently released prisoners, including The Philadelphia Reentry Think Tank, Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Program, the Institute for Community Justice, and others.
Mural Arts has robust, longstanding programs — both inside Graterford prison and outside — as vocational training. The Institute for Community Justice has a much more casual program — a Friday afternoon walk-in workshop, which director Assata Thomas said it is nevertheless important.
“Art provides a way of expression. It develops the ability to see the world through a different perspective and to take positive risks,” she said. The main benefit, she said, is the ability to show others the artwork to raise awareness about the realities of the criminal justice system.
“What people watch on TV — ‘Law and Order,’ ‘Orange is the New Black,’ ‘The Wire,’ all these shows we have been inundated with about prison and the criminal justice system — those are not accurate depictions of what is happening day to day,” said Thomas.
The exhibition will remain in City Hall until the end of the month.
WHYY is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism that speaks, across the city and across media platforms, to the challenges and solutions for reentry. The collaborative contributed a video to the exhibit at City Hall.