How public art can help ease ex-offenders’ return to society

Sam Durant's "Labyrinth" at Thomas Paine Plaza symbolized the struggle of people caught in the criminal justice system.

Sam Durant's "Labyrinth" at Thomas Paine Plaza symbolized the struggle of people caught in the criminal justice system.

Steve Weinik

At Mural Arts, we had a mostly bare tree in our entryway. As our staff members reflected on things to be grateful for this season, they each filled out a leaf-shaped card with a few words, and hung it on a branch. Slowly, thoughtfully, the branches became laden with our grace and thanks.

As I watched the tree grow full, I couldn’t help but compare it with a recent Mural Arts project, a project that was taken down just a few weeks ago. It also started with a framework, and slowly transformed to fullness through the memories and stories of the people who interacted with it.

Sam Durant’s Labyrinth, a transparent maze that transformed into an opaque wall of stories, grew out of his interactions with people within Philadelphia’s prison system. A participant in one of the workshops told Sam that going to prison was like getting lost in a maze, and Labyrinth, a chain-link fence maze across from City Hall, was born out of that comment.

The art comes at a timely moment in our national conversations, as we’ve seen an increased focus on our criminal justice system over the past months. From President Obama to John Oliver to a bipartisan initiative in Congress, we are at a moment of collective recognition where we all see that the system isn’t working, and that the punishments frequently do not fit the crimes.

I’m encouraged by the conversation and the spotlight focused on this pressing issue, but I need to push the question even further…

What happens to a person when they return from prison?

Re-entering society is an immense challenge. A life that has been interrupted for months or even years can never pick up exactly as it was left, and reconnecting to that life is complicated, challenging, never-ending work. So how do we help someone merge back into a full-fledged life?

As a part of Mural Arts’ core programming, we work within the concept of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a unique way of bridging communities: It brings together offenders, victims, and the community, weaving together the people that make up our neighborhoods. It shifts our perceptions of who a prisoner is, asking how a person who has hurt a community can now make a positive difference. Restorative justice is an embodiment of our mission and a way to live our motto: art ignites change.

And it’s a way to make a constructive difference in the lives of the formerly incarcerated. A program like ours puts practical and creative skills together, helping build a platform that can be used as a jumping-off point for multiple career paths. I love seeing how the young men and women who work with Mural Arts gain confidence in themselves, have a sense of pride in their work and skills, and begin to see that they are valued and valuable members of their community.

Restorative justice by the numbers

My personal evaluation of this program is also backed up by the numbers. In defining the recidivism rate (the re-incarceration rate of former prisoners), the National Institute of Justice states that across the country and within three years of release, 68 percent of former prisoners have been re-incarcerated. For participants in Mural Arts’ program, the recidivism rate fluctuates between 10 and 15 percent.

Beyond the staggering percentage gap, those numbers represent people. They represent the stories of men and women who have found a way forward, who have reconnected to society, and are on their way to a fulfilling life. I want more programs like this, programs that teach, guide, and mentor young people, giving them an opportunity to work and a clear vision of a future that offers hope and possibility. I want more programs that react to these national statistics by taking a proactive approach and searching for ways to fix a system.

I’m grateful for programs like this, programs that look creatively at intractable societal issues, and say, yes, art can be the spark that ignites tangible change. I’m grateful for every moment when Mural Arts can be a part of that process. I’m extraordinarily grateful to have witnessed this artistically fueled social change for over 30 years, and to have watched Philadelphia transform through periods of immense creativity and expansion.

I think it’s time to fill out my leaf.

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