Latyra Blake spent one year and two weeks in prison. But she wasn’t serving a sentence—she hadn’t even gone to trial. Instead, Blake was there for an all too common reason: She didn’t have enough money—in her case, $10,000—to pay the pre-trial cash bail after she’d been arrested following an altercation on her block.
She’s far from alone: Nationally, 60 percent of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial; in Philly as of this March, 81 percent of women in jail in Philadelphia were being held pre-trial.
Over the 54 weeks Blake spent in the city’s Riverside Correctional Facility, she was separated from her four sons, the youngest of whom was only seven months old. She lost her North Philly home. She lost all of her possessions—including the ashes of her brother, who’d died before her eyes in 1997.
Nationally, 60 percent of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial; in Philly as of this March, 81 percent of women in jail in Philadelphia were being held pre-trial.
Ultimately, she pled guilty to conspiracy aggravated assault—as so many women in her position do—as the quickest means of getting home. Never mind that, she says, a witness had cleared her name; she just needed to be done with this chapter of her life.
She returned to her family—her mother and sister had taken care of her children in her absence—as a new woman: 100 pounds heavier, depressed, adrift. She knew she had to make a change. But with so few options for reentry programs for women, she wasn’t sure where to turn.
Then, while undergoing addiction treatment at Interim House, she heard about The People’s Paper Co-op (PPC). She thought it would be an opportunity to color, draw, make some art. What she discovered was so much more.
“It’s art for your voice,” Blake says one evening by phone from the transitional housing in which she’s now living. PPC, she says, shows formerly incarcerated women like her that, “You have a voice now. You’re growing. You’re growing so that people can see that change in you. You’re growing so that you can fight for others. You’re growing that backbone and that discipline, and you’re helping others along the way.”
And this week, for the second year in a row, PPC is collaborating with Philadelphia Community Bail Fund on their third Mama’s Day Bailout to raise funds to bail out other women like Blake, in time for Mother’s Day on Sunday—then hosting a celebration to welcome them home next Tuesday. Last year the Fund raised $90,000 to bail out 23 mothers (and more people throughout the year).
The Co-op, a program of The Village of Arts and Humanities on 25th Street and Germantown Avenue, uses art—like stunning mixed-media posters about equality and the role of women in society, and journals made entirely of recycled criminal records—not only as a means to help formerly incarcerated women express themselves, but to affect real change.
“Art is such a powerful tool for building community and trust, and for healing,” says Mark Strandquist, who founded the program with fellow artist and activist Courtney Bowles in 2015. “We’re using it as a Trojan Horse to [access] these political and cultural spaces of power—City Hall, museums—that have traditionally silenced these women’s voices or not included them in these spaces. We’re able to really amplify their dreams and demands, whether it’s about destroying stereotypes or impacting policy.”
Their work has gone beyond artmaking, spanning efforts like collaborating with community legal services on campaigns around banning the box—the box asking applicants (for housing, college, and employment) to acknowledge whether they have a criminal record—and working with formerly incarcerated women to write a group article about coping with depression while imprisoned, which this spring was published in Prison Health News.
The heart of PPC’s work was on display one evening this week on Penn’s campus, where the group had organized a pop-up art exhibit and t-shirt making session. Hung all around the white walls of a rectangular room at Penn School of Design’s Meyerson Hall were moving images and slogans created by the women of PPC; the closer you got to the work, the more clearly you could see that they had been printed on actual criminal records, which the women of PPC had blended up into pulp and made into new paper.
“That record no longer exists to you,” Blake says. “You’re free from that. That’s why we blend it up. You don’t let it define where you’re going in life.”
Digital versions of the artwork were available for sale. So too were tomato-red t-shirts, printed with the words “Free Our Mamas,” that volunteers were screen-printing by hand and hanging on lines to dry. All the money raised was going to free incarcerated mothers who are sitting in jails because they can’t afford cash bail.
Next Tuesday, PPC will welcome those mothers home with their Women in Re-Entry Day event at City Hall. At 1:30, the group will rally and march alongside formerly incarcerated women to demand an end to cash bail and pre-trial detainment (last year, DA Larry Krasner put an end to cash bail for certain offenses). At 3 pm, Broad Street Ministries will host performances by formerly incarcerated women and display their artwork, and advocates from around the region will share steps on how people can fight for the rights of all currently and formerly incarcerated women. Childcare will be available at the event.
“It will give people really clear ways to engage and enter into this kind of work,” Strandquist says. “We’d love for as many people to be there and see these amazing women in process.”
In process, yes—and in progress, too. As Blake, who now mentors other women through PPC, says, “People are proud of me now. I’m proud of me. This is my story, and there’s a reason why I’ve been through all that. Because I’m pretty sure it can help the next woman.”Photo by Mark Strandquist for The People's Paper Co-op