Artist James “Yaya” Hough spent more than 25 years in prison on a murder conviction he does not contest. At the age of 17, he faced a lifetime behind bars.
That all changed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2012 for juveniles to receive life sentences. Now, the 45-year-old Pittsburgh man will have a front row seat to watch the very system that locked him up unfold before his eyes.
Hough is Philadelphia’s first artist-in-resident to occupy a seat at the District Attorney’s Office.
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He will spend six to nine months observing prosecutors and create art based on what he sees that will “expand public awareness about the need for innovation and new thinking” within the criminal justice system, according to Mural Arts Philadelphia, one of the partner organizations facilitating the project.
The pilot program is considered the first of its kind in the nation.
“I am humbled and honored to receive this residency,” he said. “I feel that my whole life has been leading to this moment.”
Hough has already completed more than 50 projects throughout Philadelphia and inside nearby prisons, including SCI Phoenix where he most recently served time for killing a man in 1992.
Nearly three decades later, Hough regrets the choices made by his teenage self. He also sees an inherent problem with a justice system that frequently locks people up without the intention of rehabilitating them.
During a press conference Thursday, Hough did something few formerly incarcerated people ever do - he thanked Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner for his “commitment to justice and serving all parties.”
“I can’t say enough about you,” Hough told Krasner. “I think you are, going forward, a model for all prosecutors to follow.”
Krasner, who was elected on a promise to reform the district attorney’s office, said criminal justice is the civil rights issue of our time. Invoking Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song “Alright,” which became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, and Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” Krasner said criminal justice reform is having “a cultural moment.”
“This office is a part of what started … years ago,” he said. “It is our hope that other progressive prosecutors’ offices throughout the country will see this model and want to emulate it.”
The unlikely partnership between convicted criminal and the criminal justice system started while Hough was still behind bars.
A self-described artist since childhood, Hough took classes in prison led by Mural Arts and other partners. It was during those classes that Hough met Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden. They forged a friendship that eventually sparked a strange idea: embedding artists within the very system that locked them up.
“Art helps us understand how the system of justice works,” Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts, said.
“The work goes behind reflection and conversation. It is not passive. In fact ... when we create art around critical social and civic issues … we see our work extending beyond the realm of public space to that of public action.”
Partners hope the cultural experiment will eventually expand beyond Philadelphia. In a statement, Krasner said the "innovative" program aims to "reveal the spark of humanity and the potential for rehabilitation."