Advocacy project designed to help women reenter society after prison

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- This is a story about paper, prison, and promise. The art of papermaking is giving women a chance at a new life after prison. It is thanks to a special place called the "People's Paper Co-op" and a 56-year-old woman named Faith Bartley.

Blank pages of a journal tell a story even before a single word is written on them. When you look closely at the paper, embedded inside are the remnants of a previous life - criminal records.

To understand the paper you have to understand the paper maker.

Bartley told us she grew up in a single-parent home in North Philadelphia.

"My mom was addicted. My dad was missing in action," she said. "I went to prison. I had several prison stints since starting from 2000."

A high school graduate and Army veteran, Bartley said she tried rewriting her story outside of prison walls.

"I wanted to do the right thing, but each time, there was nothing out here for me," she said. "So many freakin' barriers."

"A lot of doors were being slammed in my face as far as employment," she said. "People are looking at criminal records and not the person you are."

"It was like, 'Oh my God, here I go again, what am I going to do? Where are the resources?' I was scared to death," Bartley added.

"And I was like, 'Well, let's go back to what's familiar,'" she said. "It was like selling drugs, it was like doing drugs. And hence, I landed back in prison."

But then in 2014, while working at a fast-food restaurant, Bartley found resources and renewal when a customer introduced her to the People's Paper Co-op.

"These are old criminal records," she said. "I make beautiful handmade paper out of shredded criminal records."

The People's Paper Co-op is operated by the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia.

"Shredding those criminal records is a physical act, but it means so much more," said Action News reporter Nydia Han.

"It means a lot more," said Bartley. You're destroying your past, your past mistakes."

First, the past is cleansed in hot water. Then the process involves blending, pressing and peeling.

"Tell me how transformational this process is," Han asked.

"Very cathartic, very," she said.

Bartley said it allowed her to heal.

"It heals some of the internal wounds that I caused myself," she said, "It's like starting new, starting over again,"

Now, as the lead fellow at the Co-op, Bartley is helping to give other women a fresh slate, too.

The Co-op hosts free clinics so women can get their criminal records expunged. It has partnered with Community Legal Services so people can meet with lawyers and have their records gone over to see if they're eligible to have it cleaned up or cleared.

And after Bartley turns their past into fresh paper, they express themselves on it through journal writing, poetry and art.

"My name is Courtney Bowles. I'm the co-director of the people's Paper Co-op," she said.

The Co-op's mission is to respond to what Bowles calls a crisis. She says, "Large numbers of folks are impacted by the criminal justice system and the lasting effects of having a criminal record. Our country punishes people for being poor, for being Black, for being a woman," said Bowles.

Between 1980 and 2019, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%. Black women are imprisoned at a rate 1.7 times higher than white women.

"Eight percent of the women who are locked up are moms," said Bowles.

"When the queen bee is gone where do the children go?" Bartley asked. "You lockin' up the hope of a community."

A big problem is cash bail.

"People are literally held in jails sometimes for as little as $25 sometimes for over a year," said Bowles.

"And so it's been my experience when I sat in jail after being found not guilty for four months, I lost the little apartment I had," said Bartley. "So every year around Mother's Day, we make amazing art to help bail moms out."

By selling art for the Mama's Day Bail Out in partnership with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, the women have raised $120,000 the past two years.

"Sixty-seven-and-a-half percent of the people that get out of prison will end up back in prison within three years," said Bowles.

To change that narrative, Bartley and the People's Paper Co-op also provide support when the women return home. They have pop-up art exhibits outside of prisons, so once the moms are free, they can be greeted with artwork and hugs.

"Support means everything. I'm telling you if I had support time and time again I wouldn't have never went back," said Bartley. "I can't stress enough that women need love and support."

The unlikely craft of papermaking is providing a chance for women to change their narratives.

"I want people to know that we just need a chance to prove ourselves. We need an opportunity, we need fairness, we shouldn't be judged by our past mistakes. I paid my dues," said Bartley.

And now for Bartley and others, a new story is ready to be written.

"I hope I can be a living blueprint and a walking resource for women like myself who want to start fresh," she said. "I don't see my criminal record. I won't see none of it no more. I see the person I am today."

If you'd like to learn more about the People's Paper Co-op or support their mission by purchasing art, you can do so on its website: http://peoplespaperco-op.weebly.com/
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