The mural La Palma Correctional Center inmates painted
Studies show 67.8% of released inmates are rearrested for a new crime within 3 years and 76.6% are rearrested within 5 years. Within three years of release, 49.7% of released inmates end up back in prison and 55.1% end up back in prison within 5 years.
--U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics
Virginia Sawyer never trained as an artist. But that hasn’t stopped her from using art to bring change to dozens of lives.
As the unit manager at La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, Virginia and a group of inmates have transformed the walls of this medium-security facility into murals exploring the concept of home…and had a major positive impact on each other in the process.
Q: Tell us about your role and facility.
A: I’m a unit manager and an acting residential drug and alcohol program (RDAP) manager at La Palma Corrections Center in Eloy, Arizona. La Palma is a medium security facility that contracts with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Here at La Palma, all of our inmates are from California, and many of them are nearing the end of their sentences and preparing to return home.
Q: What is it like for inmates preparing to return home?
A: Being in prison can feel more comfortable or predictable than returning to the people and the environments that got them here in the first place. Statistics consistently show that more than 50% of released inmates return to prison within 5 years. They don’t know how to cope because they don’t ever want to come back, but a lot of them do. There is an extremely high level of anxiety.
Q: How do you and your team help inmates manage that anxiety?
A: At LaPalma, and all across CoreCivic, we place a big focus on preparing inmates for reentry. From the moment they walk in our doors, our first priority is to keep them and our employees safe, and our second is to prepare them to return home as productive members of society. That effort takes many forms—from faith based programs to vocational instruction to substance abuse treatment and counseling.
Q: Tell us about a recent effort through RDAP to incorporate art into inmates’ reentry journey.
A: I have spent most of my career in security roles. When you have a background in security, you’re always on high alert, so when I became the leader of the RDAP unit at La Palma, I had to find some way to connect with these inmates, to build a dialogue with them. Art was one way I could connect with them—they began to share their stories. Over a three-month period this summer, five inmates who were preparing for release painted beautiful floor-to-ceiling murals in our multipurpose room. The theme was “home,” and you can see in the murals that they painted many aspects of their home state of California…everything from the Hollywood sign and the Golden Gate Bridge to the state bird and flower. It’s not so much what they painted, but how they connected it to tell a story.
Q: What was the reaction of staff and other inmates and community members to the project?
A: This project took my whole security team—we all worked together to make it happen. It was really wonderful to see the pride from the guys that they really wanted to show this off. We had staff members coming from the opposite side of the compound that just wanted to see this, and the inmates were really excited to show off what they had accomplished. They were really proud, and so was I! The program has since grown. Some of the inmates who painted the first murals have become art teachers within the facility, creating art that goes out into the community through a program called Prison Art Touching Hearts.
Q: Is this something you’d do again as a part of an RDAP?
A: In a heartbeat. We transformed our multipurpose space into a beautiful celebration of home. The inmates just opened up. It’s been an amazing experience for all of us. I’m so proud of them already, But I’ll be even prouder if they never come back here or to any part of the correctional system. Maybe this experience will go a little way toward making that possible.