ANDRE JOHNSON is "not even an art-gallery type of guy," but the 22-year-old found himself in the lobby of the Crane Arts building in North Philadelphia yesterday, waiting to get his juvenile record expunged.
A man approached Johnson and asked why he was waiting instead of walking around the gallery, where a photography exhibit by Richard Ross showcases kids in prison. The young subjects' stories are told in their own words in accompanying captions.
"I'm like, 'I don't really . . . ' " Johnson said. "But then, when I got back there, I read every single story. Every story."
It was in that gallery, surrounded by Ross' sobering photos, that the local visual-arts group that curated the show, InLiquid, along with the Defender Association of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, held a free clinic to help people get their juvenile records expunged.
Rachel Zimmerman, InLiquid's executive director, called the collaborative clinic "art action."
"We wanted to make the art come alive in a much more meaningful way," Zimmerman said. "People look at the work and it's great to have them have this quiet moment, but I also think if they experience something else that is happening, it becomes that much more meaningful."
Michael Lee, supervising attorney with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, said the group holds monthly free clinics around the city to help people expunge their juvenile records.
Many people with juvenile records mistakenly believe that they are sealed or can't be viewed by prospective employers or government agencies, said Lisa Campbell, assistant chief of the juvenile unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
"They don't know that's the reason they're not getting the house, they don't know that's the reason they're not getting the loan or the job or the promotion," Campbell said. "So events like this are absolutely amazing for the community."
One 19-year-old woman learned about the clinic through her job with PowerCorpsPHL.
"I was never in jail. I was picked up before but I didn't think it was going to be on there, but it was," said the woman, who asked that her name be withheld. "But now I have no record, no nothing. I'm happy!"
The clinics also help clear the records of people with adult arrests whose cases have been dismissed, or who have been found not guilty.
"People are actually surprised that if you are found not guilty, or your innocence is maintained, that the record still exists and can be used against you," Lee said.
Johnson was able to get his juvenile record expunged, but he knows that the gun charge for which he spent four months in prison last year will stick with him forever.
But what also will stick with him are the photographs of juveniles in prison that surrounded him while he got his own juvenile record expunged.
"Bringing some of this art to life, it's just like showing people a different picture," he said. "These are like real-life situations, people in action, and it's deep."