Mural of ex-inmates seeks public input on mass incarceration

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — For nearly two decades, Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building has been home to a bronze sculpture of Frank Rizzo, the polarising, tough-on-crime former mayor and police commissioner.

Now, a temporary art installation highlighting formerly incarcerated men and women who are working to transform their lives — intended to spark a conversation about mass incarceration — hovers over the Rizzo statue.

The artists involved say that’s no accident.

“I wanted to make them bigger than Rizzo, and to make them think bigger of themselves in these dignified portraits,” said Russell Craig, one of the two lead artists of the ‘Portraits of Justice’ interactive mural, created through a programme of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “Also, in a sense, they are looking down on Rizzo.”

Rizzo’s supporters remember him as a devoted public servant. But his critics, many of them people of colour, recall his approach to policing as corrupt and racist. He once said, “We talk of overcrowded prisons. If the prisons are crowded, if we need more prisons, let’s build them,” adding that the average criminal “doesn’t even know what the word rehabilitation means”.

A man is silhouetted as he walks by enlargements of self-portraits made by a formerly incarcerated artists during Mural Arts Philadelphia’s press preview of ‘Portraits of Justice’ at the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia
Formerly incarcerated artists Christopher Bryant moves to pick up his self-portrait at the Mural Arts Philadelphia’s press preview of ‘Portraits of Justice’. – PHOTOS: AFP
People enter the Municipal Services Building under enlarged self-portraits made by formerly incarcerated artists

For the 17 men and women depicted in oversized portraits, rehabilitation has come through connecting with art and their community. They all work for a Mural Arts programme called ‘The Guild’, a paid apprenticeship for formerly incarcerated people, seen as a way to unite those affected by crime through shared creative expression.

Their images — many looking elated and beaming, others evoking a quiet pride — wrap around the base of the building and are painted against a brick background meant to symbolise the barriers to re-entering society after being released from jail.

During five performances over the next few weeks, the public will have an opportunity to wipe away a brick, and replace it with their own handwritten thoughts on how to solve problems in the criminal justice system. By the end of the programme, the bricks will have vanished, replaced with solutions.

At the unveiling last Wednesday, lead artists Jesse Krimes and Craig wiped two blocks clean. Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner each wrote their ideas for reducing incarceration. Kenney wrote, ‘Employment and Training’; Krasner wrote, ‘End excessive parole and probation’. The interdisciplinary programme opened on Friday with a performance by poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, a convicted felon who’s now a celebrated poet and memoir writer, has earned a 2010 NAACP Image Award, and is married with two children. He is currently working on a doctorate in law at Yale University and has a clerkship with a federal judge.

He has created a piece specifically for ‘Portraits of Justice’.

Other formerly incarcerated artists to perform are: Shontina Vernon on October 11; Sue Ellen Allen on October 18; and Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter on Octtober 25. The programme culminates on November 2 with a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania led by Luis Suave Gonzales.

The programme is one of the first projects funded by the Art for Justice Fund, which was launched in 2017 and invests in programmes working to cut the United States (US) prison population and boost education and employment opportunities for the recently released. Philanthropist Agnes Gund in collaboration with the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors founded the fund.

The mural’s placement at the building isn’t the only temporary art on the site. After protests over the Rizzo statue and community meetings, Kenney announced last year that it would be moved to a new location. In August he said the move wouldn’t happen for at least two years.

Christopher Bryant’s face is one of the 17 featured on the mural. The 24-year-old did two and a half years in prison for robbery, and has been working with The Guild for about three months, referred by his probation officer.

He’s learning carpentry, airbrushing and life skills and has worked on murals around the city, he said.

“It’s exciting and I’m so happy my face is a part of something positive. I want people to know I’ve changed,” he said.