Prison Murals: Inmates and Crime Victims Create Together

Concrete, steel and paint: A film of crime, justice, and reconciliation thru art

Posted Feb 25, 2014

Last summer, at the American Art Therapy Association's annual national conference, I had the honor of moderating a showing of the documentary Concrete, Steel and Paint.  The film documents…

…When men in a Pennsylvania state prison join with victims of crime to create a mural about healing, their views on punishment, remorse, and forgiveness collide. But as the participants move deeper into the creative process, mistrust gives way to surprising moments of human contact and common purpose.  

This award-winning[1] documentary raises important questions about crime, justice and reconciliation—and dramatically illustrates the power of art to facilitate dialogue about difficult issues [].

This film instigated remarkable discussions that carried late into the evening. After seeing the response of the audience at the conference, and then again a similar response after it was presented as the plenary session for the Florida State University's 2014 Art and Design for Social Justice Symposium, I knew it demanded a blog post.

Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

The City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, developed and led by artist Jane Golden, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Unbelievably, the mural program has created over 3600 murals. As its website contends:

The Mural Arts Program has also become a national leader in arts in criminal and restorative justice, currently offering educational programs in local prisons and rehabilitation centers using the restorative power of art to break the cycle of crime and violence in communities. Mural Arts offers mural-making programs for adult men and women where inmates receive a stipend to create murals for schools and community centers throughout Philadelphia. Mural Arts also offers opportunities for individuals recently released from prison through its re-entry program.

Concrete, Steel and Paint documents MAP’s first prison mural project.

Concrete Steel and Paint (CSP)

Cindy Burstein-filmmaker

Cindy Burstein-filmmaker

I had the privilege of speaking with Cindy Burstein [pictured], one of CSP’s filmmakers (in partnership with filmmaker Tony Heriza) about the making of this documentary. These two
Tony Heriza-filmmaker

Tony Heriza-filmmaker

independent filmmakers (both working other jobs while making this film) began the project November 2003; it was premiered July 2009. Much occurred over those 6 years.

Will Ursprung, an art therapist at Graterford Prison, first contacted Jane Golden with the idea that she could work with his inmates. Cindy, a former community organizer, was working for Jane and the Mural Arts Program as a receptionist; she initially took the call.  As the idea and work progressed, Jane and Cindy believed it would be helpful to video-document the process—there was no real intent at first to turn it into a full-length documentary. They turned to filmmaker Tony Heriza [pictured], American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Director of Media Production, who is also, incidentally, Jane’s husband. Tony’s focus is on prison reform and restorative work. As he began to film, he realized the potential scope of the project, and turned to Cindy for help.

The concept for the project expanded; initially the film would be about prison and how art can fill gaps that emerged from lack of resources. However, a new dynamic materialized—the collaboration between prisoner and victim. The film had a new focus.

 Prisoner's Journey

Healing Walls mural: Prisoner's Journey

Eventually, what emerged was a film that documented the Healing Wall project—two murals in the middle of Philadelphia: Prisoner’s Journey (pictured) and Victim’s Journey  (pictured). The film documents the trajectory of these projects as seen through the eyes of the prison inmates in Graterford, victims of crime, and Jane Golden.

Initially there was to be one mural that would capture the visions of both groups. This soon fell apart, and it became clear that two separate murals were needed.  What emerged were two incredibly dynamic walls that, taken together, demonstrate the amazing complex continua between prisoner and victim, punishment and restoration, fear and understanding.

 Victim's Journey

Healing Walls mural: Victim's Journey

Interestingly, I discovered during the interview that while they were documenting the Healing Walls Project Cindy and Tony were also filming a second project; a collaborative mural between the inmates of Graterford and adjudicated youth—both took more than a year each to film. Unfortunately, the editing for the film was a struggle, necessitating a focus on Healing Walls. Although access to the prison was obtained, the fact that they could only film in two hour increments and given the limited access they had to the inmates and certain sections of the prison, the process was unexpectedly prolonged. As it turned out, Cindy and Tony had over 100 hours of footage they needed to edit down to 55 minutes. As Cindy indicated, “we had A LOT of stuff we couldn’t use; it breaks our heart.”

While I hope some day their documentation of the collaboration between the men and youth is fully realized, the power of this documentary may have suffered if diffused with another project. As it stands, with the focus more on the Healing Wall Project, this piece is—simply put—powerful. Interviews of the inmates, victims and mural project coordinators are skillfully and intriguingly interwoven with scenes of the inmates and advocates working side by side in the prison. They are depicted painting the parachute panels that would ultimately be attached to the large buildings and speaking with each other about their own heart-felt experiences. The film seamlessly cuts to community members and the prisoners' family members outside the prison working on the same panel. Viewers are provided insight on the depth and complication of the process, from initiating the idea through to its execution and dedication. It is clear that the filmmakers were not allowed to film the inmates, but they deftly handled that limitation. Viewers are taken through the journey of the inmates' growing self-awareness, and of the people who have suffered.

What the film captures is close to immeasurable, but Professor Howard Zehr, a pioneer of Restorative Justice, said it best:

Concrete, Steel & Paint portrays the core values of restorative justice—respect, responsibility and relationships—expressed through art. It is art that involves victims, offenders and communities in a dialogue that is sometimes difficult and painful, sometimes reconciling, but always engaging. As one prisoner says in the film, ‘We have come together collectively through art.'

Addendum: After going to the 2007 Arts in Criminal Justice Conference in Philadelphia with representatives of the Florida Department of Corrections, and hearing Jane Golden present her work, seeing an initial rough cut of this film, and touring Graterford Prison, we were inspired to launch our own Inmate Mural Arts Program in Florida. Several murals were developed and created by Florida State University's graduate art therapy students working alongside prison and jail inmates. The next several posts will present these experiences.

[Special thanks to Cindy Burstein for providing the interview and the images for this post—she truly is a remarkable person]

[1] Directors Award: Hearts and Mind Film Festival

Best Documentary: Peace on Earth Film Festival

John Michael’s Social Justice Award: Big Muddy Film Festival

2011 Honorable Mention: Talking Pictures Festival

Cultural Spirit Award: New Hope Film Festival


About the Author

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is a professor and chair-person for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and a clinical coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.

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