“However many neighborhoods there are in Philadelphia,” said artist James Hough, who was incarcerated at SCI Graterford for 27 years, “that prison is an extra one, because the people that reside there continue to be connected to the events of the city.” It’s a truth that more and more people will learn, thanks to a groundbreaking artist residency program at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office—the first of its kind in the country.
“The city has a definite role to play in the lives of those people who will return, and this is one of the meaningful ways this can happen,” Hough said of the new program at a November 21 announcement event at the District Attorney’s office.
The residency has its roots in a small mural-making program that Mural Arts Philadelphia launched inside Graterford about 20 years ago, said Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden. She called Hough “an incredible painter” and a “deep thinker” who was a leader in that inaugural class, and went on to become part of a Mural Arts team behind the walls who helped create more than 50 different artworks that now appear on buildings throughout the city.
Early this year, Golden said, the Art for Justice Fund (which makes direct grants to artists and advocates working to reform the criminal justice system) issued a call for proposals. Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP), a nationwide network of progressive elected prosecutors, approached Mural Arts about a proposal for an artist-in-residence at the Philly District Attorney’s office, and they partnered to land the grant that will support Hough’s residency, which leaders say will last from six to nine months.
Hough, a Pittsburgh native, was convicted of murder as a teenager, and began serving a life sentence without parole at age 17, in 1992. After a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that barred life sentences for people under 18, Hough’s fate changed. He was resentenced, and after spending a total of 27 years in prison, the now 45-year-old artist was released from SCI Phoenix (the facility that recently replaced Graterford) this past summer. He lives in Pittsburgh, making art and joining activist networks to reform Pennsylvania’s prison system.
“The people behind the walls are not nameless and faceless,” Golden said of what she learned working inside Graterford. “Many of them have extraordinary talent, gifts and strengths that never come to light.” They’ve also committed serious crimes, but “I don’t think it is up to us to judge,” Golden said. “They have been judged.”
Hough’s residency will include community-oriented public art-making and programming for both the public and members of the District Attorney’s office. According to Mural Arts, the art and programs will “explore the human toll of incarceration and highlight the importance of creating alternatives to a punitive and incarceration-driven justice system.”
“Art can play a profound role” in criminal justice reform, said FJP executive director Miriam Krinsky. In all its forms, art can “reveal and make us confront our biases,” calling out injustice, humanizing marginalized voices, and inspiring us to act.
“Mr. Hough is here because of the incredible quality of his art,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “He is not in this process to be a propagandist, or to market, or to advertise … he’s going to do something that only art can do.”
The DA also emphasized the broader context of the residency, calling it a small part of a national cultural movement encompassing authors like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and James Forman Jr. (the Pulitzer-winning Locking Up Our Own), music stars like Kendrick Lamar, filmmakers like Ava DuVernay (13th; When They See Us), and even professional athletes.
Hough said he’s been making art since he was a child, with the visual arts in particular running in his family. After meeting Golden at Graterford, he thought a lot about her philosophy of art not only as meaningful and redemptive to the individual, but to society at large.
“I’m humbled and honored to receive this residency,” he continued, promising to bring his own talents while amplifying the voices of community partners and centering families affected by mass incarceration.
“I’m not a Philadelphian,” Hough told CityWide, “but I want to be.” He loves Philly folks: “they’re gritty, they’re tough, they take no crap. It’s a blue-collar city; it’s a very intelligent city; it’s a creative city; it’s electric.”
Each trip here inspires and motivates him: “There’s an energy to the city of Philadelphia that I really love, that is just brimming and bubbling with creativity.”
Krasner wants other District Attorney offices throughout the country to take note of the residency. “It is certainly our hope that other progressive prosecutors’ offices around the country will see this model, and will emulate it, and we are very excited to play a part.”