Oct 11, 2018

Rallying in Harrisburg with Restorative Justice

by: Meg Wolensky

In early October, our Restorative Justice team traveled to Harrisburg, PA to install a new exhibition at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex—featuring work by Restorative Justice participants, as well as the artists who work with them. The show corresponded with the October 2 Rally to End Death by Incarceration, which drew over 400 people. We asked one of our staff members, Meg Wolensky, to share her perspective on this powerful gathering.

By Meg Wolensky: 

There are over 5,000 people serving Life Without Parole sentences in Pennsylvania. That sentence means an entire life, and that number includes a staggering number of juveniles sentenced to wait for death in prison.

Some refer to this sentence as “Death by Incarceration” (DBI). According to Decarcerate PA, this harsh sentencing does not improve public safety and disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color. According to the testimony of family members of victims, people who are incarcerated, and former juvenile lifers alike, the collateral damage is vast.

Rally to End Death by Incarceration at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex in Harrisburg. October 2, 2018. Photo by Meg Wolensky.

I was in Harrisburg on October 2 on behalf of Mural Arts, tasked with taking photos of our exhibition, though I found an abundance of familiar faces at the rally itself. Kempis Songster, a recently-freed juvenile lifer known to myself and many others as “Ghani,” spoke at length of the suffering caused by a broken criminal justice system. Eric Okdeh’s artwork was present at the exhibition, tapping into his experience as an instructor at Graterford for 12 years. His body of work shines a light on the painful realities of modern incarceration, especially the plight of juvenile lifers. And Luis Suave Gonzales, one of the artists featured in our exhibition, was filming and interviewing other rally participants.

Another former juvenile lifer, Suave came to Mural Arts through classes at SCI Graterford during his 16 years of incarceration. He refers to Eric, his teacher at Graterford, as one of his most notable artistic mentors. Now a professional artist, TEDx lecturer, and activist, Suave is coming back to Mural Arts to teach justice-involved young adults through our Guild program.

Artwork by Luis Suave Gonzales. Photo by Meg Wolensky.

After the rally, a reception was held next to the exhibition. I got to check out some of the amazing signs that rally participants had made featuring their loved ones and statistics, and I shared conversations with family members of victims and people who are incarcerated about their experiences. In return, I shared a little bit about my experience from teaching at Graterford.

Big clusters of people came to check out the exhibition, including one current SCI Phoenix participant’s sister. Tom S. is a very active Mural Arts participant, and one of Eric’s former students. In the photo below, his sister sits next to his artwork, which is here in Harrisburg when he cannot be.

The Rally to End Death by Incarceration was a powerful event with palpable energy in the name of justice. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to witness the power of communities as they come together.


The exhibition will be on view at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex in Harrisburg until early November. Meg Wolensky is the Project Manager for Restorative Justice, and a former Art Instructor for the Father and Children Together (FACT) Program at SCI Graterford.

Last updated: Oct 11, 2018

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