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Re-thinking criminal justice through an artist residency with ex-convict James Hough

James Hough is the first artist-in-residence at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office and it might just change how the justice system is perceived.

by Jones JohnPublished on : Mar 02, 2020

The concept of criminal justice tends to often be perceived simply as the proving of guilt and the administering of punishment. While people do question the fairness of certain laws and judgements, what happens beyond the courts does not always enter the public imagination, except for when it might be accompanied by some sort of a spectacle. It is a lack of visibility that diminishes awareness about the subject and subsequently hinders the potential for discourse around the subject. This reduces participation in discussions around post-incarceration and rehabilitation to a specialised minority, often just stakeholders in the prison system, the family and friends of prisoners, and interested third parties such as non-profit organisations.

In the last decades, the idea of creative rehabilitation has seen considerable growth, and various policies have been implemented around to world towards the holistic treatment of prison inmates and their effective reintegration into society. While most models to this end have hitherto followed a top-down model, a new chapter in this story is being written at Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office: a nascent artist-in-residence program whose first participant is an ex-convict.

James Hough with Joanna Otero-Cruz, Jane Golden from Mural Arts Philadelphia, Miriam Krinsky from Fair and Just Prosecution and District Attorney Larry Krasner | Press Conference for Artist Residency Program at District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office | James Hough | STIRworld
James Hough with Joanna Otero-Cruz, Jane Golden from Mural Arts Philadelphia, Miriam Krinsky from Fair and Just Prosecution and District Attorney Larry Krasner Image Credit: Courtesy of Mural Arts Philadelphia

On 21st November, 2019, James Hough, or “Yaya” as his friends call him, was announced to be part of this ground breaking program which hopes to bridge gaps between the state authorities and city’s public. In 1993, Hough was sentenced for life for first-degree murder at the age of 17. He was released due to recent legal reforms in the U.S.A. that relate to his status as a minor at the time of the crime. While the events that led to his incarceration have been cause for considerable regret for the artist, the 27 years he spent in prison were formative in making him uniquely qualified for his new role. In his own words, “during that time I was able to engage with arts organisations, communities and social workers to really develop a significant and powerful art practice. It was my dream to return to society and become a practising artist, but it was also my dream to be engaged with the (criminal justice) community inside that art practice.”

Hough had worked with Mural Arts Philadelphia, an organisation which engages across the spectrum of social justice to create public art that can touch the lives of people, for a majority of his prison sentence. His practice, which then consisted of working on parts of murals by other artists such as Eric Okdeh, matured considerably through the sensibilities he cultivated while working in this setting, and this has culminated in his selection for the residency. While he understands that one residency might not solve all the issues facing the field of criminal justice, he strongly feels that the exploration is vital to initiating a healthy conversation.

Transormation by Eric Okdeh, a part of which was painted by James Hough | Mural Arts Philadelphia’s prison art program | Eric Okdeh | STIRworld
Transormation by Eric Okdeh, a part of which was painted by James Hough Image Credit: Jack Ramsdale / Courtesy of Mural Arts Philadelphia.

The opportunity presented to Hough is unprecedented in its potential to spread awareness and influence the people who matter, from those in power to the prison staff, to make better use of resources to the benefit of inmates and, through their effective rehabilitation, society at large. The challenges that face an ex-convict are plenty due to their isolation from the mainstream and the stigma associated with their pasts, and society has a collective responsibility in ensuring that they do not have legitimate reasons to have to return to crime. Hough is a voice that can speak about the trials and tribulation of inmates and be heard by the virtue of his new position. He can simultaneously present challenges of both sides of the system to the other, thereby creating an effective space for mediation and empathy. This is facilitated by the expected outcome of the residency, i.e. executing workshops, public outreach programmes, infomercials and shareable content that focuses on both individuals and statistics.

An artwork by James Hough | Mural Arts Philadelphia’s prison art program | James Hough | STIRworld
An artwork by James Hough Image Credit: Courtesy of Mural Arts Philadelphia.

A certain synergy between like-minded people from all walks of life is necessary for making innovations in how social justice can be perceived and implemented. It was Krasner’s appointment as D.A. in 2018 and his spirited advocacy of more liberal criminal justice reform that encouraged the Los Angeles-based Fair and Just Prosecution to approach him with the idea for such a residency. While Fair and Just Prosecution and Mural Arts Philadelphia were instrumental in the residency’s conceptualisation and implementation, it was the Art for Justice Fund, which was initiated by Agnes Gund after the sale of Roy Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece (1962) for $165 million in 2017, which has made it happen. The organisation has funded the D.A.’s office with $25,000 as an initial budget for this first residency alone, as part of an ongoing commitment to fight mass incarceration which saw Mural Arts receive $200,000 in late 2017.

According to Hough, a major setback that affects communication in this realm is politics being insular, but one can hope that this is gradually changing. It has been reported that other D.A. offices in the U.S. have expressed interest in starting similar programs. With more people entering the dialogue, more awareness is spread. With empathy guiding the mitigation of crime and the use of creative measures to this end, one can be more hopeful for the future of justice systems across the globe.

A drawing by James Hough| Mural Arts Philadelphia’s prison art program | James Hough | STIRworld
A drawing by James Hough. Image Credit: Courtesy of Mural Arts Philadelphia.

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