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How a Philly Neighborhood, Where Almost Everyone Has Loved Ones in Prison, Is Bridging the Divide

Samantha Melamad - November 18, 2019

Tyreek Dekeyser has been home from prison just 13 months, so he still remembers how it felt to receive letters and photographs from the outside — or, more often, not to receive them.

That’s why Dekeyser, who goes by Reek, keeps a handwritten list of nearly 50 names, inmate numbers, and addresses, and writes to each regularly, sending snapshots of home in words and images.

“He’s home,” Dekeyser said, tracing his finger down a sheet of loose-leaf paper and explaining each connection. “Childhood friend. Cousin. Met him inside. Family member. Met him inside.”

On Sunday, Dekeyser invited his North Philadelphia neighborhood to join in this labor, hosting a portrait session and a special installment of a biweekly letter-writing event he runs, called Broz Nite, on the campus of the nonprofit Village of Arts and Humanities.

In a zip code with the city’s highest incarceration rate — including blocks where one in five boys will end up in prison as adults, according to the U.S. Census Opportunity Atlas — it seems almost everyone has someone locked away behind chain link and razor wire.

Dekeyser sees an urgent need to reach past those barriers. “If the community pulled together, there would be less crime,” he said. “It’s people not getting along.”

The event, an afternoon of music, food, and entertainment by a neighborhood magician, Quany the Clown, was supported by the Accelerator, a Village initiative to invest in creative projects that cultivate community safety and civic engagement. The Village paired Dekeyser with a collaborator and mentor, David Flores, a New York-based photographer who has worked on large-scale community portraiture projects, including a series of photos of immigrant families exhibited in New York City parks.

Despite the festive atmosphere, Aheer Goods, 45, sat in quiet contemplation, paper and prestamped envelopes spread in front of him. He knows people in prison who call themselves “the forgotten limb,” their connections to the outside frayed or altogether severed.

“I can relate to it because I spent some time in there. I got some family members who are not ever coming home,” Goods said.

He was writing to a cousin, and to a friend he walked the prison yard with for seven years. “I have some sad news to share,” he said. “One of my childhood friends murdered another one. And I have to write to them and say I still don’t have an answer for why.”

It seems easy to end up in prison here — for some, almost inevitable. There aren’t enough options for young people, Dekeyser said; other than the Village, with its arts programs, there aren’t many sports leagues or after-school jobs.

Tyheed Hill, 25, and home just one month from a four-year stint at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview said he wants to reintegrate into law-abiding society, but a dead-end job search was eroding his motivation.

In addition to writing to his cousin and a friend from prison, Hill was drafting a letter to a stranger, Frankie Brown, one of a growing list of men who’d asked Dekeyser for a letter from someone, anyone, from back home.

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