The rough cuts of the film were in, and Clarence was not happy. A man incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Chester for years, he had a complex story to tell: about his niece, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2 and given 72 hours to live.
“She gave me a purpose of living,” said Clarence. “If she’s going to live every day, knowing she’s going to die, how could I cry about small things like being in prison, when I put myself here.” She’d given him a sense of self-worth, sent him a greeting card with a mirror in it, and made him promise to look in it every day and say, “I love myself.” Eight years later, she died. Eventually, the prison took away the card.
Now it was just Clarence, trying to make sure the story was told right — trying to impress his vision on the collaborators before they went back to the editing suite to try again.
It’s one way that the restrictions of prison tested the collaborative skills of a corps of 20 incarcerated men at SCI Chester and a crew hired by Eastern State Penitentiary to develop a series of animated shorts to be screened starting Aug. 15 on the walls of the historic state prison-turned-museum in Philadelphia’s Fairmount section. Called “Hidden Lives Illuminated,” the series aims to confront museum visitors and neighbors with the lived experience of prisoners who come, mostly, from nearby communities, but whose voices are rarely heard.
Sean Kelley, director of interpretation at Eastern State, which looks medieval but housed prisoners as recently as 1971, said it’s an extension of the museum’s shifting focus, from an Instagrammable old dungeon to a historic site that tells the story of America’s prison system and what drives its highest-in-the-world incarceration rate.
“My experience is, there are people in prison who are trying very hard to make a positive impact on the world, but they don’t have many opportunities to do that,” he said. “The people who were attracted to this project were people who wanted to make a positive impact on the outside.”
Telling those stories was possible through a mix of old-fashioned animation techniques — mostly stop motion, using whatever objects men had in their cells, and cel animation, stringing together hundreds of hand-drawn images — and iPads, one of the few items the staff were permitted to bring into the prison, equipped with an app to capture and string together the footage.
The work began in 2018, just after the conclusion of a weeks-long lockdown across the state system, followed by tightened security measures that even further limited what supplies could be brought into the institutions. Teaching artists Erika Tsuchiya-Bergere and William Wallace III led a yearlong class to help the men develop their work — and then worked with an outside team on post-production, trying to realize the men’s visions.
“The hardest thing about filming in prison is prison,” Wallace said. But he thinks the resulting films were worth the effort. “We’re trying to get the truth of people’s lives out to the general public."
The short animations center on themes of restorative justice, life in prison, criminal justice, and the impact of incarceration on families and communities.
One man named Joe (under state Department of Corrections policy, the men could provide first names only) told the story of the two dozen dogs he’d trained in prison, to be adopted in the community, through photographs, drawings, and stop-motion dog treats dancing across the screen.
Another, Qwasheam, told the story of going through cancer treatment while incarcerated, through hand-drawn images of the hospital, where he was shackled through chemotherapy and radiation, and of his frail body huddled, gripped by nausea, in his prison cell. He grew up in Francisville, around the corner from Eastern State, and he’s hoping his family will see the film and understand a bit more about life inside. “I didn’t know how I was going to get this story out,” he said.
Paul, meanwhile, packed into his two minutes an epic that spans three generations: the story of his father, who spent six years of Paul’s childhood in prison, and Paul’s son, who was 2 months old when Paul was first locked up 15 years ago. Paul saw his father only once while in prison. One of his few, precious childhood memories was watching the movie Flight of the Navigator with his father, over and over, just before his father went to prison. “I stayed up late one night and caught it on television. I called him to tell him. This dude didn’t even remember the movie,” Paul said, with a shake of his head.
He wants to do better by his son, but he doesn’t know how. “I just saw him for the first time in 10 years," he said. “We forfeit all that type of stuff when we come to prison — relationships. In reality, I really don’t know my son.”
His hope is that these stories, projected in the heart of Philadelphia, can be a sort of bridge. His own family tends to hide things from him, such as when his mother died and he found out through word of mouth and had to beg them to tell the truth.
Some of the men said they’d been transformed by the work, some into artists, and other into activists.
“This is the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of," said David, watching a rough cut of his animation on a monitor. "That’s a blessing for me. At least I did something while I was here.”
Hidden Lives Illuminated films will screen at Eastern State Penitentiary, 2100 Fairmount Ave., from Aug. 15 to Sept. 12, with screenings at 7, 8, and 9 p.m. Visit EasternState.org for a full schedule of films and events.