Back in November, muralist James “Yaya” Hough was named the first artist-in-residence for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Until a few months ago, Hough was incarcerated at SCI Phoenix, serving 23 years of a mandatory life sentence without parole. This month, he begins his residency.

The residency, which is in partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia and Fair and Just Prosecution, is a six- to nine-month program that culminates with works of public art that highlight the “human toll of incarceration and the need to create alternatives to the current incarceration-driven justice system,” per an announcement. The program is funded by nonprofit Art for Justice, which offers grants to artists and advocates who are focused on reducing the prison population. Since 2006, while still incarcerated, Hough completed over 50 murals with Mural Arts Philadelphia in the city.  

“They were well aware of artistically what I am capable of, but also on another level, my commitment to these types of issues,” Hough told Hyperallergic about the different agencies that collaborated to make the residency happen. “I’m able to present a certain balance that most artists probably can’t because they don’t have the lived experience.”

One project of particular interest to Hough is a series of video interviews. The artist told Hyperallergic that he wants to create workshops to foster conversations between DA office employees, people who are currently serving time and survivors of crimes.

“There is no doubt any artist can come into this residency and create an amazing project or projects that will captivate minds and produce beautiful things and tell some truth,” Hough said. “But I think what they probably are unable to bring is a really high level of passion and commitment to [these] issues and a really strong desire to create dialogue inside of the community, between the DA’s office, the citizenry, the affected communities and more specifically, victim advocate groups—particularly ones that are marginalized, formerly convicted individuals and prosecutors.”