Murals and a Great Divide

Documentary: "Concrete, Steel, and Paint"

THOSE OF US who are passionate about prison reform could talk at length about the injustices of the penal system, but prison activists and concerned citizens sometimes gloss over the internal conflicts of prisoners in their daily lives as well as the pain and fears of crime victims in local communities. The documentary Concrete, Steel, and Paint raises some essential questions about hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation through the moving story of unlikely partners—those incarcerated for committing violent crimes and those affected by violent crimes—who come together to create a mural in their community.

The film begins at Graterford Prison near Philadelphia, a maximum-security institution where men are serving long sentences for violent crimes, including homicide. The men interviewed for the film seem thirsty for opportunities for healing. One of the first prisoners we meet, Tom, says: “When you do wrong that you can’t correct, it’s horrible.” Another inmate, Zafir, tells the camera: “I don’t want my legacy to be that I was a murderer.”

The energy for a mural project came from Jane Golden, the executive director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, who believes in the power of art, and murals in particular, “to shift the consciousness of a community.” Golden began working with prisoners in Graterford in the early 2000s. The men in her workshops eventually came up with the idea to reach out to the community. “I thought it was an interesting idea,” Golden says, “but I told them the only way this can possibly work is if we can get the community involved.”

After a significant amount of pushback from community members, Golden suggests making two separate mural walls to convey the different journeys of offenders and victims. “It’s healing for me to tell my story,” says the mother of a homicide victim. “Maybe it will be helpful for them to tell their story.” The film teaches viewers that there are points of similarity in these stories—hurt, loss, anger, regret—and there is a shared desire for healing and for change, but the journeys are still different and portraying them in shared space could minimize the ability to convey truth for each group. Can offenders and victims of crime ever share a platform to express pain, to ask for healing?

The film doesn’t answer this question, but it does make clear the need for expression on both sides. Over time both groups work to design their murals, and eventually they come together to paint. The joint task of painting and piecing together these murals allows for deeper transformation as inmates and community members share their lives with one another, side by side.

Zafir, the prisoner we meet at the beginning of the film, says early on, “I do have something to contribute. I’m still a human being. Here I am.” A young woman whose brother was murdered looks up at one of the completed murals toward the end of the film and says, “This mural actually shows victims; it shows that we’re here. We’re in the communities and we deserve a light too ... We are here.” In the end, most of the inmates are still prisoners and none of the victims have gained back what they lost, but the practice of mural-making has allowed both the offenders and the affected to restore some of their loss through a simple, prayer-like message: Here I am; we are here.

Anne Marie Roderick is editorial assistant at Sojourners. For more, visit concretefilm.org.

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