Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
Lena I. Jackson
Lena I. Jackson
Mixing art with criminal justice has become increasingly common in the U.S. The work often tackles complex subjects of redemption and reform. Jeffrey Brown traveled to Philadelphia to explore a program that brought art to an unexpected part of the justice system: the office of the city’s top prosecutor. Parts of this story were shot before the pandemic.
We look now at the culmination of an unusual project exploring the criminal justice system through art.
Jeffrey Brown traveled to Philadelphia, where this unexpected partnership has played out. A note: Parts of this story were shot before the pandemic.
It's part of our Searching For Justice series and our ongoing Canvas arts and culture coverage.
Portraits of people on all sides of the criminal justice system, prosecutors, victims' advocates, formerly incarcerated individuals.
They're the work of James Hough.
Does it still feel unusual to just be taking a walk like this?
Yes, it does. Yes, it does.
Actually, to be out here today and to be walking in the sunshine is an amazing experience. It's almost surreal.
In 1993, Hough, then just 17, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled such terms unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. Hough was resentenced and, last year, after 27 years in prison, released. In January, along the city's Rail Park, he showed us a large mural he'd helped design and create while in prison, a work he never thought he'd see in the outside world.
When we began to work on projects like these, they changed our lives. You know, they showed us a different way.
It brought me peace. It brought me satisfaction.
Art helped change Hough's life, and brought him to a very different side of the justice system.
Last November, he was named artist in residence for the Philadelphia district attorney's office. It was a project believed to be the first of its kind.
And DA Larry Krasner wasn't sure what to make of it when he originally heard the idea.
At first, I was a little confused, because it's a new notion.
Confused, like, what is that, what does it mean?
Like, what is that?
I mean, I have heard of the arts, but this is also a prosecutor's office. So, it seemed like an interesting notion. The more I thought about it, though, and the more I spoke to people about it, it seemed like a really good idea.
Krasner is no stranger to controversial ideas and approaches. A lifelong defense attorney and activist for criminal justice reform, he was elected in 2017 as the city's top prosecutor, vowing to change a system he sees as wasteful of human lives and public resources.
What I and we are all trying to do is get away from this very, very ineffective, entirely retributive system that does not make us safer, but gives us things like mass incarceration, does not fund our schools, but funds a whole lot of prisons.
You know, we cannot solve all of our problems by locking people up, by putting them in cuffs. It does not work. We know this.
His actions to date, including seeking little or no prison time for some offenses, have garnered wide attention, praise and plenty of opposition.
But how does an artist in residence program fit in?
Every black male who was in the park last night is a suspect.
Krasner cites culture, movies, TV series, music, taking on serious issues of criminal justice and perhaps changing hearts and minds.
And he sees the arts project as a new way to reach the public.
You said you wanted a lot of data.
Has anybody shown you the data lab downstairs yet?
He's quick to insist there is no public funding involved. The money comes from an outside foundation. And he vetted James Hough, his crime, his experience in prison and, of course, his art work.
This is not propaganda. There's not necessarily an obvious message, something — something that tells you what to do.
But, to me, there was a kind of a really deep talent that was behind this, and it was supported by 20 years of developing his artistic ability.
James Hough began drawing and painting as a child. But it was in prison that he became a serious artist, part of turning his life around.
Older inmates advised him: Make this your university, not your casket.
I felt like whatever I could do artistically would only matter in the larger sense, as a human being in a society, is if I became a better person.
In 2006, at the state correctional institution at Graterford, Pennsylvania, he joined a program run by Mural Arts Philadelphia, a group known for using public art to both beautify and address social issues in the city.
Hough and other inmates created works on fabric that were later transferred to walls around Philadelphia, like the one by the Rail Park, which involved help from prominent artist Shepard Fairey. It's called The Stamp of Incarceration.
Jane Golden is the founder of mural arts.
There's something about redemption.
And I think that art has a transcendent power, and somehow it's lifted something for so many of our stakeholders who. James will now become a contributing member of our society.
This year, Hough spoke directly to many in and around the criminal justice system, some virtually, and used those interviews in creating the portraits.
I asked what message he wanted to get across.
Individuals who commit acts that destroy the public trust, that harm other individuals, there's a social price that must be paid for that.
However, there's also a redemptive quality to human beings that we can never forget exists. And if we foreclose on that, we foreclose on our society.
Several of Hough's portraits will be on display at the DA's office and other sites around the city through the end of October.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Philadelphia.
So important to be reminded of that.
Thank you, Jeffrey.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Sam Lane is reporter/producer in PBS NewsHour's segment unit.
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.