A minor felony conviction like drug possession can be a ball and chain for people who have served their time and are trying to turn their lives around. But in many states, a process known as expungement allows such offenders to seal off their records from employers and landlords doing background checks. In the City of Brotherly Love, a program of the People’s Paper Co-op (PPC) helps ex-offenders raise their hopes by pulping their expunged criminal records and turning them into clean sheets of paper on which they assert their new identities.

In collaboration with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), the PPC holds free clinics where thousands of participants have worked with lawyers to clear their records. In a symbolic and satisfying next step, the records are pulped and turned into fresh, blank sheets of handmade paper. On the new pages members are invited to complete the phrase: “Without these records I am…” Responses to the prompt range from “I’m a kind and selfless guy, and I try hard to do the right thing” to “I’m a pillar in my community, still trying” and the simple “I can change.”

The responses are paired with Polaroid portraits—“reverse mugshots.” Then the individual stories are sewn together into a giant paper quilt, which is exhibited in an effort to spark discussion, empathy, and criminal justice reform.

This year, the project expanded to create Philadelphia’s first Reentry Think Tank, which, according to the PPC’s partner organization the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, “connect[s] returning citizens with artists, activists, and legislative experts” to help destroy stereotypes, create connections, and advocate for measures that help ex-felons make a successful reentry into the economy and society. The PPC hires some of the people who have used its clinics, as they have gained advocacy and communication skills along with paper-making ability.

Portions of the quilt were shown in multiple venues across Philadelphia over the past year. Parts are always on display at the PPC’s storefront.

Jen Dolen is on the editorial team for Public Art Review.

Featured in Public Art Review #56.