Artist reflects on nearly 40 years of painting women serving life sentences

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Walk around Northern Liberties long enough and you’ll encounter a weathered tile mural embedded in the side of Kaplan’s Bakery, at 3rd and Poplar. The woman that stares back with aching eyes is not a local hero or someone who died tragically. She’s an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs serving life without parole.

The carefully painted text accompanying the portrait tells her story:

“Cyd Charisse Berger has been in prison in Pennsylvania since 1980. She is sentenced to life without parole although she did not commit a murder. Previously, she tried to escape from him, but he stalked and beat her until she returned. Just before he killed the victim, he practiced on Cyd Berger. She helped her abuser flee and reported him to the police. Cyd Berger is asking the governor to pardon her sentence and needs support. Her abuser was the murderer.”

In West Philadelphia, at 44th and Locust, a mural of Rose Dinkins, another woman serving life without parole, offers a more concise statement: “I believe that my life is worth saving because of the person I am today."

These two tile murals are the work of Mary DeWitt, a local artist who has been visiting seven women serving life without parole in Pennsylvania since the late ‘80s, all while painting their portraits and recording their thoughts.

“I see what people don’t have access to, and I have to bring visibility to it or I’m a real asshole,” says DeWitt.

The “it” she’s referring to is the United States’ unduly punitive justice system. The U.S. is the only country in the world to sentence juveniles to life without parole, according to the Sentencing Project. (Pennsylvania has the dubious honor of holding the largest population of these prisoners — nearly 500.)

In six states (including Pennsylvania), anyone given a life sentence is denied parole by default. A lifer’s sentence ends either with her death or a rare pardon from the governor.

“I think that the Jim Crow South lives on in the prisons. These people should never have been warehoused these many years, and it’s devastated their families and their communities,” DeWitt says.

With over 30 years worth of material, DeWitt is in the process of planning a major exhibition at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in October 2014 titled “Then and Now: Portraits of Women in Prison.” Along with her paintings, she’ll screen videos that show the process of creating her pieces accompanied by interviews with the inmates. Beyond giving these otherwise invisible women exposure, she’s hoping the exhibition will put her in touch with property owners willing to give her murals space on their walls.

DeWitt first met her subjects over 30 years ago when she began teaching art to the men at Graterford and the women at SCI Muncy as part of the Pennsylvania Prison Society Arts and Humanities Program. She gravitated toward the lifers, partly because of their commitment to attending class.

As she grew closer to the female inmates, she started painting them in the vein of Alice Neel, an artist famous for her expressive portraits of friends, lovers and strangers.

“They’ve grown so much now,” Dewitt says. “They have these amazing lives that aren’t that separate from a monastic, reflective kind of life.”

Over the years, she’s come to know these women as “hard-working, disciplined and talented.”

Avis Lee, who served as a lookout for her brother as he committed an armed robbery that resulted in a murder, has been transcribing Braille for the past 12 years. Marilyn Dobrolenski, who took part in a bank-robbing spree that resulted in the death of two Delaware state troopers, now trains puppies for the disabled, one of which DeWitt adopted. 

Many of the women DeWitt knows have pleaded their cases in front of the Board of Pardons, which, if it unanimously agreed, would then recommend that the governor commute the sentence. No one has been successful, though, a fact in line with the trend toward strikingly fewer pardons for lifers in Pennsylvania.

DeWitt says it would be difficult to say beforehand how she would respond if a victim's family approached her about her project. "For sure, I would express how sorry I am for their shocking and devastating loss."

How would she explain the importance of her work?

"People should be accountable and serve time for violent crime, especially when a life is taken," says DeWitt. "I also believe that all people, even those serving time for murder, are worth knowing and understanding. I realize that in our political climate today, this is perceived as insensitive to victims' families. It's not my mission to hurt victims' families, they have suffered enough. But I know that replacing a person's name with a number and hiding the person from sight until death, regardless of how that individual develops, is inhumane."

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for those sentenced as juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, in Miller v. Alabama. Two of DeWitt's subjects, Roxanne Severcool and Sharon Wiggins, were both 17 when they committed their crimes, and seemed to have a chance of being released.

“This new thing with Miller v. Alabama has rocked their world because they might get out,” says DeWitt.

But Pennsylvania's Supreme Court decided that this ruling couldn't be applied retroactively.

At the age of 62, Wiggins died of a heart attack in March 2013. During her 42 years in prison, she was denied clemency 13 times. There's still a chance the decision in Pennsylvania could be reversed, which could have an impact on Severcool's status.

“So often I want to say, ‘Oh God, I can’t do this. I just want to paint,’” says DeWitt. “I like Cy Twombly. I like abstract painting. And then something else will happen and I’ll say, ‘God, it’s just endless what’s going on with their situation and in our country in general with prisoners.’”

For DeWitt, the tile murals and portraits have been a way for her to express her outrage, an outrage that still fuels her decades later.

“I do this work because I know a group of women who I believe should have been pardoned decades ago. Instead, they are warehoused," she says. "They are among the many faces of mass incarceration."

Correction: We initially reported that Avis Lee and Marilyn Dobrolenski were sentenced as juveniles (under 18). Lee was 18 years old when she was arrested; Dobrolenski was 19.

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