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Fellowship allows formerly incarcerated artists to push for criminal justice reform

Seven formerly incarcerated artists received $20,000 each last year through "Right of Return," a fellowship allowing them to create original artwork exploring ideas around criminal justice reform. The fellows are a diverse group of artists and work in mediums including poetry, hip-hop and performance art. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Alison Stewart reports.

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  • ALISON STEWART:

    It took artist Jesse Krimes three years to make a 30-foot wide mural out of bed sheets called "Apokaluptein 16389067". The work was re-created at a former penitentiary in Philadelphia that is now a museum. The title of the work means "apocalypse" and includes Krimes' inmate number. He made the piece while serving four and a half years in federal prison.

  • JESSE KRIMES:

    This work in particular is kind of a culmination of that event. And knowing that I made it through that situation and didn't end up conforming to the idea that I'm a criminal, or the idea that I'm something other.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    In 2009 he was arrested for dealing drugs shortly after graduating from college with an art degree.

  • JESSE KRIMES:

    I think like most Americans, I had a very different conception of what going to prison was like. And so when I went in there and I began to notice that, oh wow, these, everyone's just a normal person just like I'm a normal person who made a bad decision. And So it made me really angry. So I needed to do something with that frustration and with that anger, and artwork is one of the main ways that I know how to speak and communicate.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Communication about imprisonment is at the heart of an experiment. It's called the Right of Return Fellowship. Jesse Krimes and six other formerly incarcerated artists from across the country are the first recipients of the award, which gave them each 20,000 dollars to create art about the criminal justice system.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    It was funded by the Open Philanthropy Project, whose mission it says is to improve lives, and quote "to give as effectively as we can and share our findings openly so that anyone can build on our work." Grant officer Chloe Cockburn focuses on criminal justice reform.

  • CHLOE COCKBURN:

    A lot of our grants are about predicting a particular decarceration impact, and working back from it, and saying how likely is it that this grant will produce that impact. I don't have that type of case with this grant, it's more like a sense. Formerly incarcerated artists coming together, networking, could be a really interesting jumping off point for intervention in this cultural conversation, let's try something there. So I can be kind of entrepreneurial, experiment with it a little bit.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    One fifth of Cockburn's 25 million dollar budget goes to "entrepreneurial" projects like this one. The combination of art and criminal justice reform as a catalyst for change makes sense to Cockburn, who is an artist herself and a Harvard trained lawyer.

  • CHLOE COCKBURN:

    What art is pushing towards us is this idea of culture change, getting people to kind of see something they didn't see before, become exposed, and proximate.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    The theory is to bring people with first hand experience with the justice system into the conversation about what issues need to be addressed.

  • CHLOE COCKBURN:

    This fellowship is different in that it's about people, and not laws and policies, about specific individuals investing in their leadership to connect to each other, and to tell powerful stories, as formerly incarcerated people, and as artists.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    The fellowship was proposed and administered by the Soze Media Agency, an advertising firm co-founded by Michael Skolnik. It was mentioned on Twitter and a few blogs. No one expected what happened next.

  • MICHAEL SKOLNIK:

    We were hoping that we would get maybe 40 entries for the fellowship. We had 327 in a month, in four weeks, with no advertising, no billboards, no, right no mass marketing to get folks to respond, it was really word of mouth.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Are there any benchmarks the artists need to meet? Are there any parameters?

  • MICHAEL SKOLNIK:

    They do have to create a piece of art that is connected to a criminal justice reform campaign. Somebody may make a video for a prosecutorial race in Indiana, somebody might make a billboard, or a dance piece, or a poem.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    The introductions began at a mandatory fellows workshop in New York City. The artists met with a variety of potential collaborators including editors from the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.

  • JUAN ORTIZ:

    I was never one of those people that actually sat down and gave it too much thought other than doing things that other people thought were creative.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Juan Ortiz was jailed as a teenager for taking part in a car theft. He is now 42 years old with a masters in public policy and art.

  • JUAN ORTIZ:

    Artwork was just the tail end of me trying to do something. For me, a large part of it coalesced around problem-solving. Like having an idea, an emotion, something I wanted to convey through artwork.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    As a young man Ortiz saw many young Latinx people enter the illegal drug trade. Some went to prison. Some died. From his perspective growing up on the U.S. Mexico border, the American appetite for drugs is part of the problem…as he depicts in this drawing that he submitted as part of his fellowship application.

  • JUAN ORTIZ:

    The painting shows Uncle Sam injecting heroin and saying, "This is war, let's do our part." And kind of money falling out of his pockets. And using the border wall as a tourniquet.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    His actual fellowship piece uses the wall as a call to unity. It's a mural at the U.S. Mexico border promoting cooperation. As a part of the fellowship, the artists were given a tour of the Whitney Museum's biennial exhibit, which featured several works that showed the power of artistic expression about difficult subjects. Something these artists are hoping to accomplish themselves.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    In his fellowship piece, Krimes plans to document the violence at New York's controversial Rikers Island Prison. He wants the piece to be a mobile public artwork so it can reach as many people as possible.

  • JESSE KRIMES:

    I think one of the main things that art is able to do that other mediums are not is it's much more effective in winning over hearts and minds, and also elevating issues that maybe go unaddressed without some kind of tangible, visible thing for individuals to interact with.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Seven people, that's a small number of people, what difference can giving seven talented people a nice sum of money, what difference can that make?

  • MICHAEL SKOLNIK:

    I would always tell people, when you give a speech, when I give a speech I'd be afraid nobody would show up. If one person shows up, that one person could change your life. You don't know who that person is. So these seven people, that one piece of art could change one person's life. So we don't know what the reverberation of the inspiration of this art will do, and that's the fun part.

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