There isn’t much distance between two new murals at the underpass at 21st and JFK, and that’s by design.
On one wall are 20-plus-foot likenesses of nine formerly incarcerated Philadelphians dressed in the kind of uniforms they wore behind bars — drab, deliberately anonymous— beneath the words: “Once Stigmatized.”
On another wall, just across the street, there they are again, this time dressed in clothing representative of their individual personalities and journeys beyond bars. The words “Always Resilient” are written above.
Depending on which way you approach the underpass, you either first see them as the inmates that they once were or the community leaders they now are — captive or captivating.
What struck me as I waited at the underpass to meet a few of them recently, was just how little distance there is — figuratively and literally, in this case — between people society deems irredeemable and those who prove otherwise when given a second chance.
There, that’s Jondhi Harrell, the founder and executive director of The Center for Returning Citizens, which helps those making the transition from prison to the outside, and, since COVID-19, has fed thousands of Philadelphians through his nonprofit.
And that’s John Thompson, who is growing New Hope Services, a nonprofit to help provide the recently released with basic needs when he’s not working as an organizer for the Abolitionist Law Center.
The Rev. Michelle Anne Simmons founded Why Not Prosper, which provides housing and programming for formerly incarcerated women in Philadelphia.
Faith Bartley is a lead fellow of the People’s Paper Co-op, an initiative operated by the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, which turns old criminal records into fresh paper, and helps women reenter society
I was scheduled to meet them at the mural one recent afternoon when Naiymah Sanchez arrived first. One of the last times I saw her was in 2015 when she was claiming the remains of a murdered and discarded transgender woman as GALAEI’s TransHealth Information Project coordinator. She’s now the trans justice coordinator for the state’s ACLU.
Knowing what you know now, I asked Sanchez as we faced the mural that depicted her in her prison uniform, what would you have told your former self?
“Keep going … That girl was beaten down, always on the defensive because she had to be, because of who and what people thought she was.”
She smiled. ”Yeah, I’d tell her to keep pushing. It gets better. And I’m still not done yet.”
The murals come after last year’s online exhibit “Rendering Justice” at the African American Museum. In collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia, the exhibit was an unflinching examination of mass incarceration through art by formerly incarcerated artists, including: “Point of Triangulation: Intersections of Identity.”
Created by Michelle Daniel (Jones), a doctoral student in the American Studies program at New York University, with the help of Deborah Willis, a photographer and professor at NYU who was born and raised in Philly, the murals challenge observers — first through the photographs at the museum and now in the companion oversized murals — to consider the stigma and re-criminalization confronted by formerly incarcerated individuals.
And the part that society — all of us — plays in it.
“Facing these larger-than-life images gives people a way to step back and think about how they are viewing these people as a way to incorporate a new narrative,” said Willis.
The composition of a triangle was intentional. One side, the incarcerated individual. Another side, the person trying to overcome the stigma to reenter society. And, finally, the observer, who can choose to be accepting, or to weaponize the stigma.
“There’s power in knowing, and it rests with the observer, it rests with the community,” said Daniel (Jones). “And so the project is a check for the observer.”
By now you may have noticed that I haven’t included any of the crimes that landed these individuals in prison, not even in passing, as is traditionally done in news stories. I wavered on that — a lot in some cases. Context matters.
But that’s the challenge, isn’t it? Not just in this project but in our everyday lives:
How much of a person’s past defines and dictates their present, or future — even when, maybe especially when, it tests our personal limits of empathy and sympathy?
What more is owed after a person has “paid” for their crimes — or at least served their time?
Must every sentence be a life sentence?
“If we’re talking about overcoming stigma and developing a sense of empathy and connection— I mean, if we’re really talking about doing justice — then we have to make sure a range of voices are heard and respected,” said Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, which will officially dedicate the mural Oct. 5.
“There are so many people who, while they are incarcerated, not only change their life, but they change their thinking patterns,” said Harrell, of the Center for Returning Citizens. “We represent the more than 300,000 formerly incarcerated people who live and work in the city of Philadelphia. And we are committed to building not just a better life for ourselves, but for our families, for our neighborhoods, for our community. That’s the message of this mural.”