May 8, 2020

muraLAB: Morality of the Moment

by: Norah Langweiler

Under usual circumstances, incarceration is intolerable and traumatic. Under threat of COVID-19, it is torture. On Wednesday, May 6, Mural Arts’ innovative program, muraLAB, gathered a panel of experts to discuss how COVID-19 is impacting our prison system and those trapped inside, as well as the role of art in the pandemic. Watch the full conversation.

Prisons are Hotbeds for Disease 

As one of the largest vectors of the disease, COVID-19 has turned prisons into an updated, and slightly less controlled, version of the Tuskegee Experiments, where the largely black inmate population is subject to the whims of a medical establishment who would rather see the disease take its course, and likely their lives, than see these individuals released from prison.

The massive numbers of COVID cases are just the start. Jasmine Heiss, campaign director for the Vera Institute of Justice, insists that we are seeing some numbers, but not the reality, because only some prisons are counting their cases and releasing the numbers. Others are a black box or a grey zone – no numbers to be found at all. 

The numbers we do see are horrific: more than 14,500 cases and compounding by the week. The conditions are even worse – limited, if any, access to soap or hand sanitizer, crowded conditions in dirty facilities with often indifferent or hostile corrections officers. The pandemic has ended visitations. James Hough, an artist in residence with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said that his friends still on the inside are only getting 40 minutes per day to be out of their cells – that they often have to make the choice to take a shower or make a phone call to their family. Amid this increased isolation, prisons have turned into death camps – anyone inside an unprotected victim of the system.

Nicole Fleetwood, author of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, says that even with the frightening information we do have, those of us on the outside are protected by the data, because we don’t have to see the reality.

The Fallacy of Carceral Humanism 

Art is a lifeline that offers a sense of control and a means of expression in the highly regimented world of prisons. But even James Hough, who turned to art in his darkest days during incarceration, has said that he has not turned to art to address the pandemic. “Whatever I can offer artistically pales in comparison to what is actually happening. Instead, I’m focusing on the larger picture of what I can do that will address the trauma that people live with or will live with after the virus.”

Some in the prison industry recognize that mass incarceration is not conducive to healthy outcomes, and are beginning to advocate for the release of low-risk inmates and smaller facilities – ultimately reducing the prison population overall. Others, despite the high numbers of contracted cases in prisons (or perhaps because of them) are using this pandemic to call for an increase in funding for prisons, claiming that more funding will allow for better treatment and care. However, history has shown that larger facilities simply mean more incarceration.


© James Hough

Incarceration in America is a racialized experience, with 37% percent of the prison population made up by black people while only 12% of the United States’ population is black, according to The Sentencing Project. Mary Baxter, Mural Arts Reimagining Reentry Fellow and multimodal artist, describes the mutual aid societies she is part of who work to bail their communities out of prison: “It’s a practice that comes out of slavery, where we had to buy each other out.” Even today, Americans’ freedom is still connected to money, power, and race.

Jasmine Heiss added that states do have the ability to release people from prison, setting a new path and intention for criminal justice. “The governor’s autonomy to release people is limited, but not as limited as you would think based on the numbers. Pennsylvania has the highest number of people who are serving life, or de-facto life (people who were given sentences that will result in a life sentence), in prison.”

James Hough described the lifers and de-facto lifers as “older guys in wheelchairs and walking with canes. Even if they had a violent inclination, they couldn’t act on it anymore.” He described it as a Wild West town, like that on a Hollywood set – it sounds so scary and dangerous, but when you get closer you realize they’re just plywood storefronts with no cowboys or bandits inside. James also acknowledged that his experience in prison was vastly different from that of Mary’s, by recognizing that women’s prisons have even fewer programs than men’s.

Even though Mary had limited access to arts programs during her incarceration, she still turns to art to heal from her trauma. In one of her music videos (clip below), made under her hip-hop name Isis Tha Saviour, Mary relives her experience giving birth in prison – shackled for the duration of her 43-hour labor.


The reality of incarceration requires the understanding that no level of mass incarceration can be humane or necessary. And the funding of such institutions is a moral decision, one that ascribes value to the lives and freedoms of some individuals over others. In the shadow of the pandemic, those decisions become even more stark.

The Pandemic is a Portal 

The pandemic is forcing our society to grapple head-on with the impacts of incarceration. While death in isolation is always a risk, the numbers usually show more of a trickle of suffering. With COVID-19, it is a tidal wave.

When asked about how incarceration would change her experience of the pandemic, Mary Baxter said, “I can’t imagine the horror. Before the pandemic, I couldn’t imagine a more horrible series of events. But when you throw in COVID-19, I probably wouldn’t be given a ventilator if I needed one. And what that would mean for the life of my child. It would have been a more strained connection between me and my family. 

Nicole Fleetwood, citing author Arundati Roy, describes the pandemic as a portal. “It’s important not to turn that into just beautiful speech. We need to do the hard work of transformation.”

© James Hough

“Crisis is a word pregnant with opportunity,” James Hough said, noting that we can choose what our next steps are and they don’t have to be on the same path we’ve been taking. As the country’s only DA Artist-in-Residence, James has a firsthand look at how Philadelphia is doing things differently. “The prosecutor’s office that has been elected and assembled under DA Krasner is in the community 24/7. People need to understand that what they’re doing out of their office is dynamic and amazing, as opposed to previous administrations that build their careers on destroying communities. Philadelphia probably has the most progressive DA in the country.”

Jasmine noted that “[t]his is a moment in which the deficit in infrastructure is being powerfully illuminated. Infrastructure is a moral question. The most expensive public project in Philly history was Phoenix, which replaced Graterford prison. What could that money have been spont on so that infrastructure isn’t such a life or death question?” 

The partnership between the DA’s office and James is an essential one for answering that question. As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc both inside and outside the prison system, art has been and will continue to be an essential medium for processing, storytelling, and healing.

Last updated: May 12, 2020

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