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    People’s Paper Co-op is Changing the Stigma of Incarceration

    Imagine that you were arrested for a crime that you may, or may not have committed. In the state of Pennsylvania, your innocence may not matter all that much.

    Regardless of the outcome, that arrest will stay on your criminal record until it gets expunged. This means if you’re accused of a crime and the case gets dismissed, or you are found innocent, it will stay on your record anyway. (There is something seriously wrong with that…)

    Pennsylvania is one of a few states that still has this process in place, and it’s something that can gravely harm someone’s chances of getting ahead. Fortunately, there is a program in Philly that helps people with a criminal record to re-enter society in a productive way.

    Changing the Narrative of Reentry

    Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist are the passionate, dedicated directors of the People’s Paper Co-op, an ongoing initiative of the Village of Arts and Humanities. The co-op, which was supposed to be a 6-month program, has been going strong since 2014 in Philadelphia. Their goal is to transform the narrative of re-entry by giving their members a platform to tell their story.

    Mark and Courtney believe that public perception needs to shift before policies do. They want people to understand that there is a human being and a history behind each criminal record.

    Members of the co-op create and then sell paper products like books and journals out of recycled materials. Stores like Whole Foods have donated floral shrink, which they then recycle into paper. Another, more cathartic way the members make paper is by tearing up their criminal records and transforming the shreds into pages. These paper products are sold at a few locations in Philly like the Eastern State Penitentiary, craft fairs, and online. Each journal has a little pocket on the back inside cover which holds a unique poem or sentence written by one of the co-op members.

    Although there is more demand for the products than can be produced, the primary focus of this program is not to sell books. The intention of the program is to act as a safe space for anyone seeking guidance and support. The storefront, located at 2558 Germantown Ave is a place where anyone can come in to learn, share their story, and participate in ongoing events.

    Beyond the Products: PEOPLE’S PAPER CO-OP

    The members involved in the co-op are mainly women who have been nominated to join the program. Aside from the production of books and journals, the storefront hosts events like bi-weekly yoga classes, computer literacy classes, and writing workshops. There are also resources available like free legal services from volunteers who help with the expungement of non-conviction criminal records.

    Mark and Courtney say that their ultimate goal for the co-op is for it to become a self-sustaining and nationwide initiative. Faith Bartley, the People’s Paper Co-Op’s lead Fellow, is one of the people helping lead this program in that direction. Faith, who was once incarcerated, says she wants to help the community that she once helped tear down. She now runs the ‘women in reentry program.’

    This program is considered an internship where women who were nominated meet twice a week for 12 weeks, twice a year. The program holds monthly events, called Ladies’ Night, to support and empower previously incarcerated women in a non-judgemental setting. These events, along with others happen at the storefront. Keep an eye out for their next event happening May 13th, Women in Reentry Day.

    Although Faith has described some of the sharing exercises as someone ‘ice-picking your brain,’ she said that through this, people discover things about themselves they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to tap into. The program brings out the best in people and shows them their self-worth.

    How to help out

    This initiative is so important, especially in Philly where so many of the residents are living with criminal records. Sharing information about programs like this can help create a better understanding of the stigma surrounding criminal records. In the United States, more people have a criminal record than the entire population of France. That brings to light a flaw in our legal system. People should not be reduced to a criminal record. Help get the word out and shift public perception!

    If the People’s Paper Co-Op initiative is something you’re interested in, there are a few ways you can help out:

    Share this post. Knowledge is power.

    Donate. You can make a monetary donation by clicking here and finding the donate button at the bottom of the page.

    Item donations are also encouraged! Things like subway tokens, food, books, and personal hygiene products are recommended. These items can be dropped off at The Village (2544 Germantown Ave.)

    Photo: People’s Paper Co-Op

    About Bianca Scherrei

    Bianca is a recent Temple University graduate who finds happiness in the greener things. Her experience at a cancer research association has led her to become passionate about keeping the world a little cleaner and less toxic. In her free time, you can find her drinking La Colombe coffee while taking in the city views.

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