Inmates, staff team up for massive art installation

Story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Photos by Lt. Mike Tuntakit, AA/Public Information Officer
Avenal State Prison

Inmates and staff at Avenal State Prison (ASP) rose to the challenge when asked to beautify their facility and illustrate its commitment to rehabilitation.

A year after CDCR’s Division of Rehabilitative Programs issued the challenge, the Re-Entry Hub at ASP is awash in color, thanks to inmate artists who have created murals throughout the facility.

Each facility’s murals have a theme; for instance, on Facility D the muralists are hard at work on a mural that will pay tribute to the Armed Forces. Facility F features a sports-themed mural on the recreation building, and a work in progress on a vocational building illustrates men working on various vocational assignments available at ASP. On Facility B, a California-themed installation towers at 17 feet high and 81 feet long, highlighting the state’s history and landmarks, complete with a painting of the state Capitol, portrait of Gov. Jerry Brown and a larger-than-life California grizzly.

“We respect the opportunity to paint wall murals on our yard with careful thought and consideration into the art,” reads the mission statement of the inmate artists of Facility B, “mindful that art can inspire, add life, and transform an environment.”

Eric Bergen, Wayne Cook, Joseph Frye and Daniel Stinnett, the artists who created the California murals, took the project a step further by creating a journal about the project to share with inmates in other facilities. The hope is that by sharing the challenges and successes of their projects, artists throughout ASP and other institutions will develop best practices for tackling such a large-scale endeavor.

“As artists we operate with a vision and a purpose,” the journal reads. “That vision and purpose is positivity, and uplifting everyone’s spirit – the correctional officers, ‘free staff’ and inmates alike. We step up to this task with selfless gratitude over being chosen, and appreciate being a part of something that is very meaningful.”

ASP’s Re-Entry Hub facility is committed to preparing offenders for successful transitions back to society. Eligible offenders take part of Cognitive Behavioral Treatment programs focused on substance abuse treatment, criminal thinking, anger management and family relations, while academic and Career Technical Education programs give inmates opportunities to obtain degrees and certifications that will assist them in finding good jobs on the outside. Among the many life skills studies in the Re-Entry Hub, communication and planning are highlighted as being key to success in all areas of life.

In their advice to future muralists, the Facility B artists lay out how they planned the project, from developing a vision among the artists to what supplies were needed (including paint, brushes, sealable container, ladders, pencils and an overhead projector). They also point out the importance of “human resources,” from correctional officers and teachers willing to share their time and resources to family members able to research images and share them with the artists. For example, the giant Grizzly bear was created by studying several images of bears, and the group took several approaches to painting the fur after carefully researching bears and being willing to adapt their technique as the painting progressed.

“The attention to details is frankly amazing,” said Administrative Assistant/Public Information Officer Lt. Mike Tuntakit, pointing out the various “hidden faces” to be found throughout the mural, including Ronald Reagan.

In addition to the talents and dedication of the inmate artists, ASP staff members are also heavily involved in the mural project, from recruiting experienced artists to working with correctional staff to ensure the artists will be able to work during their off-work hours. Substance Abuse Program Correctional Officer C. Dauer took the lead in the project, along with Correctional Counselor III R. Tuman, in finding artists, collecting artwork, inventorying supplies and working with yard staff and supervisors.

“The project has been a success due to the cooperation and support of Warden Rosemary Ndoh, supervisors and correctional officers who have assisted and supported this project and made the facilities environments for inmates to program,” Tuntakit noted.

ASP has thrown its support behind the mural project, from staff going out of their way to help to inmates who have spent hundreds of hours working side by side on the massive murals. Everyone involved is working toward the same goal: creating a positive environment at ASP.

“This is our community we are improving,” the Facility B artists wrote, “our respectful rendition of our state flag, strong and beautiful, freedom spread across the entire mural, with the large state seal representing our state’s history. The balances of colors and its enormous size stating to all: Stare as long as you like and consider what you can do when you dare to dream big.

“May all draw from it in the years to come a little of what they need at the moment they need it.”