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How a Philly neighborhood, where almost everyone has loved ones in prison, is bridging the divide

“If the community pulled together, there would be less crime,” says Tyreek Dekeyser. “It’s people not getting along.”

Darlene Harcum folds up a letter to her son during a Family Portrait and Letter Writing Day hosted by photographer Tyreek Dekeyser at the Village of Arts and Humanities.
Darlene Harcum folds up a letter to her son during a Family Portrait and Letter Writing Day hosted by photographer Tyreek Dekeyser at the Village of Arts and Humanities.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Tyreek Dekeyser has been home from prison for just 13 months, so he still remembers how it felt to receive letters and photographs from the outside — or, more often, not to receive them.

That’s why Dekeyser, who goes by “Reek,” keeps a handwritten list of nearly 50 names, inmate numbers, and addresses, and writes to each regularly, sending snapshots of home in words and images.

“He’s home,” Dekeyser said, tracing his finger down a sheet of loose-leaf paper and explaining each connection. “Childhood friend. Cousin. Met him inside. Family member. Met him inside.”

On Sunday, Dekeyser invited his North Philadelphia neighborhood to join in this labor, hosting a portrait session and a special installment of a biweekly letter-writing event he runs, called Broz Nite, on the campus of the nonprofit Village of Arts and Humanities.

In a zip code with the city’s highest incarceration rate — including blocks where one in five boys will end up in prison as adults, according to the U.S. Census Opportunity Atlas — it seems almost everyone has someone locked away behind chain link and razor wire.

Dekeyser sees an urgent need to reach past those barriers. “If the community pulled together, there would be less crime,” he said. “It’s people not getting along.”

The event, an afternoon of music, food, and entertainment by a neighborhood magician, Quany the Clown, was supported by the Accelerator, a Village initiative to invest in creative projects that cultivate community safety and civic engagement. The Village paired Dekeyser with a collaborator and mentor, David Flores, a New York-based photographer who has worked on large-scale community portraiture projects, including a series of photos of immigrant families exhibited in New York City parks.

Despite the festive atmosphere, Aheer Goods, 45, sat in quiet contemplation, paper and prestamped envelopes spread in front of him. He knows people in prison who call themselves “the forgotten limb,” their connections to the outside frayed or altogether severed.

“I can relate to it, because I spent some time in there. I got some family members who are not ever coming home,” Goods said.

He was writing to a cousin, and to a friend he walked the prison yard with for seven years. “I have some sad news to share,” he said. “One of my childhood friends murdered another one. And I have to write to them and say I still don’t have an answer for why.”

It seems easy to end up in prison here — for some, almost inevitable. There aren’t enough options for young people, Dekeyser said; other than the Village, with its arts programs, there aren’t many sports leagues or after-school jobs.

Tyheed Hill, 25, home just one month from a four-year stint at State Correctional Institution Rockview, said he wants to reintegrate into law-abiding society, but a dead-end job search was eroding his motivation.

In addition to writing to his cousin and a friend from prison, Hill was drafting a letter to a stranger, Frankie Brown, one of a growing list of men who’d asked Dekeyser for a letter from someone, anyone, from back home.

“You got to come out with some plans,” Hill said, slouching into his chair. “That’s what I was telling Frankie Brown here. I came out with maybe two plans, and it’s not enough. It’s a fast world out here. Very fast.”

Dekeyser’s Broz Nite events have helped restore nearly forgotten connections — for one, Quany the Clown, a.k.a. Jaquan Fields, said he’d become close again with his godfather, a man who many years ago had taken in Fields and his family when they were homeless.

“People in prison, a lot of them have no support system,” said Fields, who finally wrote a letter at Dekeyser’s invitation. “My godfather told me, ‘You don’t know how important this is to me.’”

But correspondence is complicated for those who don’t know how to use the state Department of Corrections website to locate inmates, or who are frustrated by recent changes to mail policies at Pennsylvania state prisons, which no longer allow in original letters and photos. Instead, letters are scanned and duplicates are printed, sometimes degrading them to the point of illegibility. At this event, Dekeyser compensated by running the photos through a high-contrast filter designed to withstand reproduction.

Some who pulled up chairs admitted they had not sent letters in months. Darlene Harcum, whose son is in a prison eight hours away, said she had not written in the past year, although she visits every three months. Herm Tuggles, now 27, was locked up for the first time when he was 14 for selling crack. Currently, he’s in on a gun case that Harcum believes was fabricated.

To Harcum’s mind, as much as crime has ravaged her community, the justice system has been a poor cure. “For one thing, there are really no fathers around. There’s no role models,” she said.

When Dekeyser started Broz Nite several months ago, there were about 30 regulars, he said. Now, a lot of those people are incarcerated themselves, although about 10 or 15 people still show up.

Even Dekeyser is still navigating the transition back into society and his role as a community leader and working artist. He freely admits he’s still learning. But Flores, the photographer brought in to mentor him, said Dekeyser already innately understands what’s fundamental about his art.

“He makes work about people he cares about and a place he cares about,” Flores said. “I think those are the real-deal photographers, who can amplify the things that are beautiful about the people and the places they love.”