Philly’s Mural Arts reaches out to prisoners as it shapes installation on criminal justice


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.

Next summer, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program will create a public art installation about criminal justice reform called “Voices.” Until then, it will foster discussions and workshops focused on solutions to the problems of mass incarceration.

The first workshop took place Wednesday afternoon at Graterford prison, a maximum security state correctional institute in Montgomery County.

The Mural Arts Program wanted to hear directly from prisoners to inform the art project. In particular, about how they prepare — emotionally, professionally and socially — to be reintroduced into society upon their release.

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“The pathway to success is limited,” said Mural Arts director Jane Golden. “I see how seductive the streets are. It’s overwhelming when opportunities are limited and your safety net is where you were, instead of where you are going. That’s terrifying.”

Golden has a longstanding relationship with Graterford, where for years Mural Arts has offered classes and prisoners regularly contribute to public murals. They often come out with job training in the arts.

For “Voices,” that participation will step up; prisoners, former prisoners and the public will engage in dialogues about criminal justice reform.

“We realize they have a lot to say about what’s going on in the criminal justice system,” said Golden. “We want them to be trained not just as artists, but as activists and leaders. Part of that is listening to people.”

The event at Graterford was streamed live on Facebook, via the page of Shaka Senghor who had been incarcerated in Michigan for 19 years — seven of them in solitary confinement — for second-degree murder. He has since written a best-selling memoir, “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison,” and spends much of his time speaking publicly about personal atonement and prison reform.

“If you y’all walk out of here, I want you to take a good look at yourself, and ask yourself, ‘Do I feel worthy?'” Senghor told the audience of prisoners at Graterford. “If you don’t feel worthy, turn to them old brothers over here who are trying to bless you with wisdom and ask them the way.”

The “old brothers” are former prisoners who have since become activists and mentors. They were joined by a string of celebrities who read excerpts from Senghor’s book, including rappers Freeway and Prodigy (Mobb Deep) who spent three years in prison on a gun charge.

Political commentator Van Jones offered encouragement, and actor Malik Yoba (“New York Undercover,” “Designated Survivor”) performed an original, remarkably gentle song on acoustic guitar, “The Truth is They Want Us to Fail.” One of the prisoners joined him onstage in the middle of the performance to improvise a duet.

“You need to know there are a lot of people on the outside working on your behalf,” Yoba told the prisoners.

Other workshops will be held in more public places, which will all inform the culmination of “Voices” — a public art installation in July created by artist Hank Willis Thomas and former prisoner Jesse Krimes.

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