Painting helps Minnesota county’s jail inmates express themselves
Washington County jail administrators started allowing inmates to paint the concrete blocks in 2020, but the program was suspended because of COVID-19.
STILLWATER, Minn. -- Slowly, one by one, the concrete blocks that make up the walls of the Washington County Jail’s recreation area are being transformed.
Inmates have been invited to paint one block each, and about a dozen have already made their mark. There’s a painting of an eye on one, a drawing of a red hand on another. One inmate got special permission to paint several blocks with an American flag and symbols showing the branches of the U.S. military.
It was the flag-and-military mural that inspired inmate Peter Harrington to participate in the jail’s art program, “The Art of Expression: Painting a Brighter Picture.” Harrington, 32, of St. Paul, spent part of Tuesday morning sketching a design showing his U.S. Marine Corps unit — 1st Battalion, 5th Marines — bursting through a brick wall.
“I’ve done art all my life,” Harrington said. “I saw everybody else doing it, and then I saw that (mural), so I thought I would keep it going by doing my unit and maybe somebody else will put their unit on and keep it going.”
Harrington has spent about a month in the Stillwater jail, serving time for aggravated robbery and unlawful possession of a firearm. He was charged last month with robbing the Speedway gas station on Lake Road Terrace in Woodbury — twice in five days — and the Hastings Avenue Speedway in Newport a few days later.
“It’s good to have something to do with your time,” Harrington said. “This is a good way to share your art.”
Jail administrators started allowing inmates to paint the concrete blocks in 2020, but the program was suspended because of COVID-19. It recently started back up again, said Sgt. Dave Stumpner, who is in charge of jail programs.
“There’s so much talent here,” he said. “We thought, ‘We’ve got to be able to show this, somehow.’ ”
A collage of work
Jail administrators originally considered a large mural for the space, but “that would have been limited to one person, and we wanted to expand it to others,” Stumpner said. “Our thought now is to have a collage of all the different artwork and hope, in time, that every square will be filled. This isn’t a today project; this is a long-term, over-the-years project.”
Interested inmates are asked to first sketch a drawing of their design on a piece of paper matching the size of the block. Each design must be approved by Stumpner and Jail Commander Roger Heinen. Words and religious symbols are not allowed. The money for the art supplies comes from the jail’s inmate fund, which is funded by inmate purchases at the jail’s commissary.
Inmates can choose which block they would like to decorate. Upon completion, they receive a photo of their artwork — printed on card-stock paper — for them to keep, Stumpner said.
“We also send them a thank-you for making our walls brighter and for future inmates to see,” he said.
The jail’s recreation area, which has a basketball hoop and bars on the windows, is also the site of the jail’s poetry readings. The jail regularly offers creative-writing classes to inmates through grants from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council in St. Paul.
“It’s a multi-use room, and we want to make it visually appealing,” Stumpner said. “We want (the inmates) to be proud of it.”
About 130 inmates — 110 men and 20 women — are housed in the facility.
‘A whole lot of meaning’
One woman inmate’s block painting depicts a tornado, four white doors and a train track. “She said the tornado was the whirlwind of her thoughts, those white pieces are doors — what door do I pick? — and she always feels like she’s on a train track going somewhere,” Stumpner said. “There’s a whole lot of meaning in it.”
Another woman painted a blood-red handprint to represent injustices faced by Native American women, he said.
Inmate Andrew Thai chose a black-and-white yin and yang symbol to decorate his concrete block. Instead of circles, however, Thai chose eyeballs.
“This one is inside in the darkness,” said Thai, 35, of Maplewood. “This one is supposed to be in the light outside. It’s the inside of a cell. If you think about it, you’re looking out and going around the yin and the yang. … Doing this helps me think.”
Thai said he started drawing in jail, and somebody suggested he apply for the program. He was charged in June with possession of drugs with intent to sell and unlawful possession of a firearm.
For inmates like Thai, painting can bring moments of clarity and invite calm, which can be difficult to find during incarceration, Stumpner said.
“Our goal is to help somebody, whatever way we can do that here,” he said. “Artwork helps people release the emotions that they might be experiencing here. It helps focus that. We want people who enter our jail to leave better than when they came in.”