On Thursday, a national creative agency geared toward uplifting social justice causes in pop culture launched a $100,000 fellowship for artists who were once incarcerated. The Soze Agency, which shared details of the fellowship exclusively with Mic, said it believes their initiative is the first of its kind in the U.S.
"The Right of Return USA Fellowship" is part of the agency's Returning Citizens Project aimed at establishing a network of painters, sculptors, filmmakers and performers who have served time in America's penal system. The fellowship will award seven artists with a grant of $20,000 each for projects addressing reform of the criminal justice system. The fellowship also includes a three-day retreat offering recipients master classes on campaigns, criminal justice policy and art history. The fellowship, which is being offered to people of all artistic disciplines, began accepting applications Thursday.
"Artists have always been able to tap into something that is unique and vibrant," Michael Skolnik, co-founder of the Soze Agency, said in a statement. "Imagine what artists who have experienced incarceration have to share with the rest of the world."
Even as the criminal justice reform agenda increasingly became a bipartisan effort during the Obama years, the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated individuals leaving prisons each year often faced employment discrimination and other struggles through their transition to society. Now, as the Trump administration has signaled its intention to rollback progress toward reform by expanding the use of private prisons and reviving the war on drugs, the Soze Agency said it's uplifting the voices and showcasing the humanity of those most impacted by mass incarceration.
"We firmly believe that formerly incarcerated individuals not only have a right to fully return to society, but can offer innovative solutions to one of the most pressing issues of our time," Philadelphia-based artists Russell Craig and Jesse Krimes, two of the fellowship's inaugural recipients, said in a joint statement. Craig and Krimes will work with a panel of judges to pick three other recipients.
Craig has already worked with Skolnik and Soze's Returning Citizens Project on artwork with a criminal justice reform theme. He placed his prison documents and parole papers on an 8-foot by 8-foot canvas, and then drew a self-portrait on top of them in almost transparent pastel hues. He said the piece symbolizes his experience in the penal system and how the experience remains a part of him.
"Art can provide a visual for people that are blind to [the] system or don't really know what goes on in it," Craig said in an email. "It also provides a voice for those who went through the experience or some that will never have the opportunity to tell their story."
There is no shortage of people who have stories to tell about the criminal justice system. There were approximately 2,173,800 people serving time in a state or federal prison facility in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Roughly 636,000 people are released from those facilities each year.
And because many formerly incarcerated people experience discrimination when applying for jobs that require them to disclose whether they have been convicted of a crime, the unemployment rate for returning citizens, although not uniformly tracked nationwide, is staggeringly high. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated in 2010 that the criminal justice system lowers employment rates for all men by 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points.
"There's not very many job opportunities in general for people who come home from prison," Krimes, an established multi-discipline artist whose work has been exhibited at galleries in New York City and Paris, said in a phone interview. "The transition home is always difficult. On top of that, the stigma of being formerly incarcerated follows you throughout that transition."
For that reason, Krimes said it's unfortunate that the fellowship can only accept a handful of artists this year. "I think that if this program were to develop into something larger, it would be a nice starting point to transition back home," he said.
The fellowship is being funded by the Open Philanthropy Foundation, which awarded a $216,500 grant to Soze in December. Recipients of the fellowship will be required to work in conjunction with nonprofits whose missions center the reform of the criminal justice system.
"We are humbled to be able to create this opportunity and hope to expand it as we measure the success of the first year of this project," Skolnik said in the agency's statement.
May 20, 2017, 12:44 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated to reflect Soze's announcement of two additional Right of Return fellow slots. The agency said it hopes to announce the selected fellows on May 31.