How Mural Arts is Redefining Rehabilitation through Restorative Justice

By Will Becker

If you’ve been by City Hall in the past month, you might’ve noticed the newest additions to Philadelphia’s rich array of murals along the Municipal Services Building. These pieces are titled ‘Portraits of Justice’ by Russell Craig and Jesse Krimes and depict 17 system-involved young people that are taking part in Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Guild Program. This new program and work touches on a striking – yet often overlooked – facet of Philadelphia life: that we are the most incarcerated major city in America. 

Taking note of this makes the work even more impressive - 17 larger-than-life portraits against a brick background - and even the building itself - that symbolize the systems that create barriers to reentry. Both artists of the piece are also graduates of the program. 

As such, Mural Arts is proactively reexamining the role of the incarceration system in reentry for system-involved youths – that its role should be of a ‘Coach’ and not a ‘Referee’. The system should not be finding ways for individuals to ‘slip up’ and get back or stay in the system, but should instead coach them along the way to success. 

As Mural Arts refers to their program: 

“Restorative justice is an alternative to traditional means of rehabilitation and punishment which brings together returning citizens and community members, focusing on conversation and understanding as the first steps on the path to healing.”

The Guild program cultivates resilience in individuals as they transition from incarceration back into civilian life through art education, paired with personal and professional development, and hands-on assistance on mural projects to forge bonds between returning citizens and justice-impacted communities. It has already shown positive results: 78% of Guild graduates are employed or in school after their program completion, and 92% of graduates in the re-entry apprenticeship program are not reincarcerated within one year of completion. 

This all comes as a breath of fresh air in making Philadelphia reach its fullest inclusive potential, and also ties into the city’s commitment to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Mural Art’s Restorative Justice Guild Program could not be a better fit for SDG 16, or ‘Promotion of Just, Peaceful, and Inclusive Societies’.  If the world has any real inclination to meet these goals, we need to see more initiatives like this.