In fall of 2013, something happened I never expected: I got a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer. (For readers in the distant future, that was a newspaper, which was a printed publication on unstapled paper that people had delivered to their homes.) Sure, the company was in the middle of a nasty battle over its ownership. The editor-in-chief had been fired. Circulation was plummeting. But the Inquirer still mattered, and writing my byline “Samantha Melamed, Inquirer Staff Writer” was still exhilarating, probably to an embarrassing degree: The Inquirer is the official record of Philadelphia, and has been for the better part of two centuries.
Since then, it has been my privilege to tell so many different Philadelphia stories, (including the story of Matthew Alden Price and Won Kyoung Lee, the artists who created this installation). I’ve met immigrants and activists, bail bondsmen and schoolteachers, scientists and yogis.
I’ve visited their homes, workplaces, studios, construction sites, gardens and farms; I learned to always wear closed-toed shoes.
I asked personal questions, and got answers that were sometimes hard to hear. Then, I tried to explain to the world why their stories mattered.
For the past couple years, I’ve also been writing about juvenile justice issues: kids who did sometimes terrible things and got caught in the adult system at a time when sentences had been made harsher than ever before. I met people who had been locked up for decades with no chance of release, and somehow had made meaning of their lives behind bars. One of them is Jorge Cintron Jr., who lives on the same cell block as his father, Jorge Sr., at Graterford state prison.
I often refer to Jorge half-jokingly as my “colleague,” because he has been an incredible source of information and insight to me in my reporting. Jorge’s childhood was horrible in every way that you can imagine: abuse, neglect, alcohol and drugs all played a role. He knows none of that justifies the fact that he had killed three people by the time he was 17 years old. But he told me that when he heard that someone else had been arrested for the crime, he turned himself in. He and his father are both serving life sentences. They’re both deeply involved with the church, and nonprofit organizations. Jorge helps run a group that connects fathers behind bars with their kids. And Jorge now has a chance to be released, thanks to a Supreme Court decision that said it’s unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life without parole. Jorge wants to be released, so he can be a contributing member of society, but he also told me he feels conflicted: no amount of punishment will ever be enough to make up for what he did.
This photo was taken one day when I was visiting Jorge while working on a story. He had purchased a photo ticket with his prison wages, far below $1 per hour, to get duplicate photos taken against a painted backdrop. He remarked that we’re almost the same age, and for a long time I lived barely a mile from where he grew up. But our Philadelphia stories could not be more different.