Center City: Mural Honoring the Formerly Incarcerated Unveiled on North 21st Street

The new mural is part of Reimagining Reentry, Mural Arts' restorative justice initiative with Art for Justice.

A new mural showcasing life achievements people have once leaving prison graces both sides of the 21st Street underpass under JFK Boulevard. (Adeena Syed/PN).

Story by Adeena Syed

On Tuesday, Oct 5, Mural Arts Philadelphia unveiled its newest mural—a work celebrating nine formerly incarcerated Philadelphians whose post-prison lives offer inspiration to the larger community.  

The mural, titled Point of Triangulation: Intersection of Identity, was painted by artists Michelle Jones and Deborah Willis. It comprises two paintings on walls across from each other underneath the overpass on North 21st Street, near JFK Boulevard. 

One side of the mural depicts these formerly incarcerated individuals dressed in their prison uniforms, while the  wall directly across depicts them in their street and professional clothes. The mural shows how a former inmate can become a reverend, a student, an activist, or any other career. 

This mural is part of an initiative called Reimagining Reentry, which aims to support artists who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system. Reimagining Reentry is a partnership between Mural Arts and Art for Justice launched in 2017. 

“We are completely driven to put art to work,” said Mural Arts founder and executive director Jane Golden in her opening speech. “We wanted to make sure that people’s stories were being told.” 

According to Golden, Reimagining Reentry does more than support artists who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. 

“We are looking at incarceration at a personal and systemic level, illuminating a cause as well as potential solutions,” Golden said. 

Several of the individuals featured in the mural attended the ribbon cutting. Jondhi Harrell, founder and executive director of The Center for Returning Citizens, an activist and resource organization for the formerly incarcerated, is one of the people depicted in the mural. He said that the mural signified both the pain of being stigmatized, but also the spirit of resilience.

“Look at these faces,” Harrell said, referring to the mural. “How long are we going to be held accountable for things we did in the past?”

Also present at the mural dedication was Lee Horton, a member of Lt. Governor John Fetterman’s staff, who was wrongfully convicted alongside his brother Dennis as an accomplice in a 1993 case of robbery and murder.

Since he has been granted clemency after 28 years of wrongful imprisonment, Horton has dedicated himself to shedding light on the plight of those who have been incarcerated and the stigma they face.

“The mural to me signifies the work that these people are doing in society and how these people can become productive parts of the community,” Horton said.

In his address to the audience, Harrell also expressed hope that the mural will encourage people to look beyond the label of incarceration, and to instead look at all the positive things that those who were once incarcerated have gone on to do with their lives.

“There are so many people who have been formerly incarcerated,” Harrell said. “And they have gone on to do wonderful things across Philadelphia.”

Horton said that his own experiences with the criminal justice system have fueled his desire to make change and that he hopes the mural can be a way of lifting the stigma that those who are either incarcerated or formerly incarcerated face.

One side of the mural shows its subjects as they were in prison, while the other shows their lives now. (Adeena Syed/PN).

“The mural signifies the work that these people are doing in society and that people who have been incarcerated can become productive parts of society,” Horton said.

Horton said that he hoped that the mural would help people realize that the best way to help lower the crime rate in Philadelphia is by releasing those who have paid their debt to society and allowing them to reach out to those who are most at risk.

“A lot of people who are in prison are the ones we need out here,” Horton said.

Harrell shared Horton’s opinion and said that in order to change the trajectory of the crime rate in the city, society must change the way it has looked at those who have been incarcerated. 

“We are a message that change is possible,” Harrell said.

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