Inmates’ Videos Shine a Light on Life in Prison

PHILADELPHIA — Jerome L. wanted to tell the public about how he was incarcerated at 15 and is still serving his sentence at 55, and that those contemplating a life of crime should consider that they, too, could end up serving a long prison sentence.

So Jerome, an inmate of the State Correctional Institution at Chester, Pa., signed up for a yearlong program in which he and 19 other prisoners created animated videos that will be projected from a coffee shop onto the outer wall of Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison in Philadelphia, starting on Aug. 15.

The videos, only a minute or two each, tell personal stories that involve the inmates’ regrets over missing their children’s growing up; the stark realities of being imprisoned; and the process of taking responsibility for their crimes. One of the videos was made by inmates at Riverside Correctional Facility, a women’s prison run by the City of Philadelphia.

“We’re hoping people recognize the humanity of people who are incarcerated,” said Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, which closed in 1971 and is now a museum whose mission recently shifted to focus on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. “People in prison are trying to rewrite the narrative of what their life means, and to make a positive impact on the world.”

Inmates wrote scripts for their videos, recorded narratives in their own voices, and drew or compiled the visual elements, Mr. Kelley said. They were not permitted to refer to their crimes or their victims, to depict violence or to use profanity. Several early drafts were revised at the direction of the Department of Corrections, he said.

As with any animation project, it was painstaking and sometimes tedious, but several of the inmates at the Chester prison said in interviews that it was also a cathartic and uplifting exercise that offered them a chance to communicate with the outside world. (The inmates were interviewed on the condition that their last names not be used. Mandee Quinn, assistant to the superintendent of the institution at Chester, said the Department of Corrections wanted to highlight the video program rather than the participants.)

Jerome, who is serving a 50-year sentence, said it’s painful to think about what his life could have been. “It hurts so much that if I could change someone else’s life to stop them going through what I went through, then this is what I want to do,” he said in an interview in the prison chapel earlier this month, when the videos were shown to reporters.

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