Mural Arts program holds first national Arts in Criminal Justice Conference

Artists, policy makers, students, educators, and criminal justice professionals from 29 states and six countries gathered for the first time ever in the heart of Philadelphia last month. The different parties were in town to

Artists, policy makers, students, educators, and criminal justice professionals from 29 states and six countries gathered for the first time ever in the heart of Philadelphia last month.

The different parties were in town to attend the Arts in Criminal Justice conference, which was hosted by the Mural Arts Program in an effort to “build momentum toward the creation of a support network for prison arts programming based in the United States” as echoed throughout the event.

The four-day conference was a marathon of panel presentations, round table discussions, mural tours, and brainstorming sessions geared toward augmenting the presence of the arts in the criminal justice system.

All attendees and panel speakers agreed in the ability of art to “help people feel real – art allows people to acknowledge the weight of their muscles, bones, and skin,” something critical to the rehabilitation of the incarcerated in America, as one panelist said in a discussion about building a coalition to support arts programs.

The conference included inspirational speeches by Jane Golden, the director of the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia; Sonia Sanchez, an internationally recognized poet; Luis Rodriguez a nationally recognized author and state Rep. Dwight Evans. Each speaker interpreted the state of the arts and the criminal justice program within the United States.

Like many of his colleagues present at the conference, Grady Hillman, warden of the Montgomery County Correctional Facilities in Maryland, said his motivation for attending the event was centered in the fact that “Our mission [the correctional facilities] is to change people, not just house them.”

The event was hosted at Graterford Prison on Oct. 6th. Prisoners who participated in the Mural Arts Program were encouraged to engage in dialogue about art within the criminal justice program.

“David DiGuglielmo, the Superintendent at Graterford made it possible to hold the second day of the conference within the walls of the prison,” Sharon Ostrow, a criminal justice professor at Temple, said.

“We took 200 conference attendees into the facility for a full day – including lunch – of conference sessions.

“These sessions included panelists who are currently incarcerated in the prison who are active members and leaders in the Mural Arts Prison Art program.”

Riverside Prison also hosted the conference attendees. The session at their prison on Friday was used to exchange information about the success of the Mural Arts programs within their facilities.

The conference strove to promote communication across boundaries. Those engaged in the emerging arts in criminal justice field compared and contrasted successes and challenges ranging from issues in cross community communication and how to sustain arts programs within challenging fields which would typically abstain from the arts.

“To have this broad based discussion to exchange ideas is key to change the system. It [societal change] can work but you have to be there,” Evans said. “Changing behavior will not change in an election cycle considering how deep these problems go.”

The attendees of the conference – and the conference opportunities – were diverse, which assisted in making the ideas regarding the arts in criminal justice as multifaceted as possible.

Ann Shenberger President and CEO of Philly Safe and Sound agreed with the success of the project, “I was impressed with the diversity of the conference; there were people from different geological perspectives, different positions within the prison system, artists, and a variety of non-profits present,” said Ann Shenberger, the president and CEO of Philly Safe and Sound.

The conference, as one non-profit director proclaimed on her cell phone, was “Phenomenal! I realized that this conference is just the beginning of a movement. The arts in criminal justice is beginning to be a centralized field.”

Jaime Nelson, program director of the Prison Creative Arts Program at Michigan University, explained the universal ethos of the conference. “The biggest strength of the conference, for me, was the fact that it created a space in which individuals and groups … were able to learn from one another and begin to create networks of support.”

Kyra Taylor can be reached at

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