Eastern State Penitentiary shines a light on incarcerated artists’ work with new project

Incarcerated artist Ezra watches his animation play on a cylinder.
Richard Patterson

Eastern State Penitentiary recently announced its latest project that will allow Philadelphians a rare inside look at the country’s correctional system through the eyes of those who know it best — currently incarcerated inmates.

From Aug. 15-Sept. 12, a total of 20 animated films created by artists at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester and Philadelphia’s Riverside Correctional Facility for Women will be screened on the Penitentiary’s walls using a concert-grade digital projector. Each film was created, directed, narrated and animated by the incarcerated artists, and each one tells a story through their own eyes.

Each 40-minute film will be screened three times, at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. The showings are viewable for all ages and will be broken up into four themed weeks: “The View From Inside,” “Criminal Justice Today,” “Family and Community Impact” and “Restorative Justice.” Each week will hold five short-films from the artists, plus additional films from filmmakers close to the criminal justice system or communities impacted by high rates of incarceration.

“Eastern State Penitentiary is committed to deepening the conversation about criminal justice reform in the United States. With “Hidden Lives Illuminated,” we can structure these conversations around the literal voices of men and women living inside prisons today,” said Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Project Lead in a release. “Prisons are some of the most inaccessible spaces in America. After all, prison walls don’t just keep incarcerated people in, they keep the public out. We want to use our wall to illuminate the lives of people living inside these institutions that are so often misunderstood, or worse, ignored.”

According to the release, “Hidden Lives Illuminated” has been in development for three years. Teaching artists employed by Eastern State Penitentiary have been leading classes in storytelling, screen writing, narration and animation inside Pennsylvania correctional institutions while gearing up for the unveiling this summer. The project was originally inspired by “Freedom/Time,” orchestrated by artist Damon Locks and developed with the Jane Addams Hull House and Prison. “Hidden Lives” truly gives incarcerated artists a voice and offers the public a chance to witness stories that simply need to be told.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Along with showing the insightful films, each evening throughout the program will also feature presentations from scholars, community leaders, activists, artists, victims’ advocates, and elected officials; hands-on activities for families to reflect and to open up discussions; other programs highlighting art-making, letter writing, lightning talks from leaders in criminal justice reform, restorative justice, reentry and much more.

On the last night, Sept. 12, a festival will also be held where all 20 short films will be screened back to back while a documentary film about the artists created by Media in Neighborhoods Group (MING) will play inside the Penitentiary’s cellblocks.

For more information on “Hidden Lives Illuminated” visit HiddenLives.org. For more information on the Eastern State Penitentiary (2027 Fairmount Ave.) visit easternstate.org