FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety

Criminal Justice

Portrait of formerly incarcerated returning citizen John Pace for Points of Connection by James "Yaya" Hough. Hough is the first artist-in-residence at the Philadelphia DA office. Photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

With artists, instead of punishment, the focus is on restoration

In the US, the racial and economic biases perpetuated by the criminal justice system are glaring, and their consequences are dire. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “Many people charged with crimes lack the resources to investigate cases or obtain the help they need, leading to wrongful convictions and excessive sentences, even in capital cases.” The “tough on crime” policies that began in the 1960s are rooted in a false belief that Black and brown people are inherently guilty and dangerous. This belief still pervades US culture and insidiously informs the criminal justice system, which leads to staggering racial disparities in incarceration rates. In 2003, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report warned that if trends continued without change, one of every three Black boys and one of every six Latino boys would go to jail or prison.

Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice, a nonprofit developing alternative solutions to violence, told the Marshall Project that the US justice system is “very rich in punishment and very poor in accountability” and suggested that a system that focuses on accountability for the human impact of violence leads to longer-lasting behavior reform and also advances equity. Much of modern criminal justice reform is about getting away from a simple cause-effect punishment model and promoting the healing of both perpetrator and victim. This approach to reform also aims at giving communities the support needed to prevent the conditions that lead to crime, and encourages changes to structural biases in the system.

The stories in this section focus on efforts involving artists in which restoration rather than the penal process is a north star. By refocusing criminal justice on healing violated relationships through reconciliation practices, this approach prioritizes healing and fosters expansive acts of imagination about how criminal justice might better serve our communities.

Grand River at 14th

A physical space supporting the needs of formerly incarcerated people

Location: Detroit, MI Artist Role: Re-creation of a mural on the exterior wall of the original building Partner Organizations: Allied Media Projects, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, Detroit Justice Center, Detroit Narrative Agency, Detroit Community Technology Project, Detroit Disability Power, and Centric Design Studio Cost: $10 million for the renovation of Grand River at 14th

Detroit Grand River at 14th site visit, July 2020. Photo by Stephanie Kamera.

When Allied Media Projects (AMP), a Detroit-based organization supporting the creation of media for social change, found themselves priced out of their current office space, they had to get creative. In an increasingly gentrified Detroit, affordable space was difficult to find.

Once the organization made the decision to purchase what is now called Grand River at 14th (formerly home to artists’ studios and an arts-related community-development organization), they began a community engagement process to understand how best to serve the neighborhood’s needs, understanding that development has often been a destructive force. Out of this process came a partnership with Designing Justice + Designing Spaces to create a larger “Love Campus,” now known as Grand River at 14th—a multi-building space that would prioritize the needs of community members impacted by mass incarceration.

Designing Justice + Designing Spaces is an Oakland-based architecture and design firm focused on creating spaces for restorative justice and community building towards the goal of a world without mass incarceration.

Grand River at 14th, currently in development, is designed to interrupt standard development processes which replicate oppressive systems in the built environment. In rapidly gentrifying cities, real estate development can further push out existing communities—people of color, disabled people, the formerly incarcerated, the unhoused—and increase the impact of policing.

The process has not always been simple. Construction of Grand River at 14th required demolition of a neighboring building, which bore a mural by Detroit artist Sintex, Our Land Till Death. The work honors lives lost to racist police violence in Detroit and the movements that have grown from the city. AMP will work with Sintex and a team of artists, activists, and neighbors to re-create the mural, in an effort to, as the organization said in a press release, “preserve this important piece of art and disrupt the pattern of erasure that often accompanies development.”

Grand River at 14th rendering, Detroit. Image courtesy of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces.

Grand River at 14th, Detroit. Image courtesy of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces.

Philadelphia DA Artist-in-Residence

Portrait series honoring the humanity of people affected by the criminal justice system

Location: Philadelphia, PA Artist Role: Interviewing subjects and creating portraits Partner Organizations: Art for Justice Fund (grant maker), the Philadelphia District Attorney, Mural Arts Philadelphia, Fair and Just Prosecution, other community organizations, and the portrait subjects

When artist James “Yaya” Hough was incarcerated, he drew portraits for people to send to their families. “Through his pen, he would reunite families,” says the artist’s friend Donnell Drinks. Now, after his release in 2019, Hough is a renowned painter and the first artist-in-residence at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. In October 2020, he completed a portrait series called Points of Connection, depicting people affected by or involved in the criminal justice system—survivors of violence, people returning from incarceration, employees of the District Attorney’s office, and activists working to change the system. The portraits are now on display as large-scale vinyl prints at key sites across the center of Philadelphia.

Artist James "Yaya" Hough. Hough is the first artist-in-residence at the Philadelphia DA office. Photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

“To me, art figures clearly as one of the true transformative forces we have,” he says. “We need all hands on deck. We need artists, poets, dancers...to flood our society with creativity, love, justice, and healing.”
— James “Yaya” Hough

In a video about the project, Hough says the question that motivated him was, “What would justice be to people in this city who are most impacted by the justice system?”

Hough’s subjects were participants in a process that centered on the humanity of people whose needs are often ignored or deprioritized. “To me,” he says, “it wasn’t just about painting these portraits of the subjects; it was about interviewing them, learning their stories, learning what brought them to the places they’re at... That requires something more than just technique. It requires a bond with the subject and a level of seriousness and commitment to the portrait itself, beyond the ability to paint it. I was trying in these portraits to create the empathy necessary within myself...to translate it through paint onto the canvas.”

Hough believes artists have a crucial role to play in envisioning new futures that challenge our current justice systems. “To me, art figures clearly as one of the true transformative forces we have,” he says. “We need all hands on deck. We need artists, poets, dancers...to flood our society with creativity, love, justice, and healing.”

Ribbon cutting at Points of Connection mural dedication at the District Attorney's office, September 30, 2020. Photo by Steve Weinik for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Portrait of Juvenile Unit prosecutor Ebony Wortham for Points of Connection, by James "Yaya" Hough. Image courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Points of Connection portrait of formerly incarcerated returning citizen Michael "Smokey" Wilson, by James "Yaya" Hough. Image courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Jordan Weber + Close the Workhouse

Creating opportunities for healing from the violence of incarceration through green space

Location: St. Louis, MO Artist Role: Field research, relationship building, and partnerships with community organizations Partner Organizations: Pulitzer Arts Foundation; Close the Workhouse; Arch City Defenders; Washington University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Equity (CRE2); Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

Jordan Weber hopes to create a healing space at a site like this for St. Louis residents affected by the destructive legacy of the city’s infamous Workhouse. Photos courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

When Jordan Weber describes St. Louis’ Spring Church, his tone is reverential. Passersby may see a burned-out building, but Weber sees possibility in the gray stones overrun by greenery, the roof open to the sky.

It’s the perfect home, he says, for his current project in partnership with Pulitzer Arts Foundation. Weber hopes to create a healing space for St. Louis residents affected by the destructive legacy of the city’s infamous Workhouse, where incarcerated people have faced extreme temperatures, unsanitary conditions, and unjust detainment as a result of high cash bails.

One of the most important components of the project, which runs through 2022, is trust. “It’s important to me to create a project where people want to be included and heard all the way through,” he says. “So it’s really their project, and not just an artist coming in and leaving. I’ve been lucky to build some amazing collaborative partnerships with these incredible organizations in St. Louis, like Close the Workhouse and Arch City Defenders.”

“We don’t see the oppressive constructs of our society going away any time soon, so we need to create long-term, sustainable projects to have real impact.”
— Jordan Weber

The project will incorporate reentry programming, including urban gardening, mental health resources, access to healthy food, and tools for ongoing healing—all for individuals who were formerly incarcerated at the Workhouse.

Sustainability is another guiding principle for Weber. “Everything we build for this project, we want to try to bring out to the most affected communities, like East St. Louis and the Ville, so people have the resources they need right in their neighborhoods. We don’t see the oppressive constructs of our society going away any time soon, so we need to create long-term, sustainable projects to have real impact.”

A site visit for the project, which will incorporate reentry programming, including urban gardening, mental health resources, access to healthy food, and tools for ongoing healing—all for individuals who were formerly incarcerated at the Workhouse. Photos courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

Where passersby may see a burned-out building, Jordan Weber sees possibility at sites like this. Photos courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

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FORWARD: Issue #3

Community Safety

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