The coronavirus has disproportionately ravaged African American, Latinx, and Native American communities, revealing the inequalities in wealth, access to healthcare, and quality of life that have afflicted Black and Brown people long before this pandemic. Meanwhile, the country’s prisons have become incubators for the virus, as detainees — many of them jailed for nonviolent, minor offenses — live in overcrowded conditions with limited hygiene and no social distancing measures in place. New York City’s jail system alone has seen more than 1,200 confirmed cases and 10 deaths.
In North Philadelphia, a women-led art and advocacy project known as the People’s Paper Co-op (PPC) is bringing attention to an often neglected and especially vulnerable subset of this intersectional population: imprisoned Black mothers.
For #FreeBlackMamas, an annual campaign organized by National Bail Out (NBO), PPC has launched a series of lovingly designed prints, posters, and t-shirts that call for the release of detained mothers and caregivers of color. All proceeds from sales of the works will benefit the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, an organization that aims to end cash bail in the state, with the immediate goal of reuniting jailed Black women with their families in time for Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 10.
The works were created in collaboration with the incarcerated women enrolled in PPC’s fellowship, a paid, 12-week art and advocacy program. They sent materials such as their poetry, photos, and protest slogans to artists, who transformed them into unique designs that evoke the power of motherhood and the significance of freedom. Among them are limited edition prints on handmade paper made from the women’s shredded criminal records, a project that took place in 2019.
“Having my photos and words turned into these posters was like lemonade, like a caterpillar into a butterfly. Our trials and tribulations have been transformed through the art to show our beauty and strength,” said PPC fellow Jamila Harris.
“I know what it feels like to be sitting in jail, and all you can hope is that someone on the outside is thinking of you and going to help you out. We’re doing that with our art. Art is the strongest form of communication, people might not read your words or choose to hear you, but they see this art, and it catches their attention,” she added.
In 2009, with the outbreak of the influenza A (H1N1) virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released interim guidelines for correctional and detention facilities. They warned of the particular risks posed by contagious pathogens for inmates in mandatory custody, where strategies for the isolation and removal of sick people are limited.
Now, activist groups across the nation are fervently advocating for the release of inmates during the current pandemic. According to the Innocence Project, states and counties’ responses to the crisis have been diverse; Cook County Jail in Illinois, for instance, released some detainees deemed “highly vulnerable” to the virus, and Cuyahoga County Jail in Ohio freed hundreds of inmates on bond, probation, or under conditions of time-served or community service. In places like Florida, California, and Texas, some jails have restricted the movement of prisoners altogether.
In March, New York governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to release up to 1,100 people arrested on minor parole violations. But many of them are still behind bars, awaiting hearings that will only be further delayed by the virus.
The imprisonment rate of African American women is twice that of their white counterparts, and the alarming number of coronavirus “clusters” — a high incidence of outbreaks in one particular region or area — in prisons means their health and safety are especially compromised. Organizations such as NBO are bailing Black mothers and caregivers as well as providing other services, including groceries and rent support.
“While the idea of freedom is something that artists have spent centuries contemplating and conceptualizing, for this powerful group, they are literally using their art to free people,” said Mark Strandquist and Courtney Bowles, lead artists and coordinators at PPC.
“In this current crisis, where so many of us are physically separated, something that the women in our program know about more deeply than most, this project has become a vehicle to connect across distance and difference, and to reunite communities when that is more needed than ever.”
This is PPC’s third consecutive year partnering with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund for its annual Mama’s Day Bail Out. In 2019, the group raised over $23,000 and helped fundraise more than $135,000 to free Black mothers. Hundreds of men and women wearing t-shirts silkscreened by the program’s fellows paraded the streets of Philadelphia, chanting “I am her, she is me, free our mothers, let’s get free!” With mass gatherings prohibited to contain the spread of the virus, such actions would be impossible now, but PPC’s art fundraiser will allow it to continue supporting the release of imprisoned women.
“Art is important because it gives people a visual of the hurt and pain that individuals endured while incarcerated — putting images and faces together has true meaning and expression,” said fellow Veronica Rex.
You can purchase the works at Philadelphia Community Fund’s online store. Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative is also selling PPC’s artwork, to benefit NBO. This year’s PPC fellows include Harris, Rex, Faith Bartley, Aesha Barnett, Latyra Blake, Kerri DeLeo, Kitty Marrero, Lisa Shorter, Nikkie Lee-Smith, and Sheri Lopez.