Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007

Art class gives inmates a creative outlet

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Kevin Castillo, 20, (left) and Rawley Marmolejos, 19, draw self-portraits Thursday afternoon at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility during an art class that helps Hispanic inmates develop a positive outlook.
Kevin Mendoza, 20, of Silver Spring is beginning the third month of a nine-month sentence at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds for concealing a deadly weapon.

On Thursday, he sat in a jail classroom with 10 other Hispanic inmates drawing a picture of a college diploma and a graduation cap. He wants to earn a college degree and become a mechanic.

Mendoza was participating in the second of a 10-session painting class, which began Sept. 27 in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. He said he looks forward to Thursdays now because he has something interesting to do. The classes help him reflect on his past and think about what he wants to do in the future, he said.

‘‘It is good that they are showing us things and giving us more opportunities, especially to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month,” Mendoza said. ‘‘It makes a lot of us look at our roots and our culture.”

The inmates, dressed in gray jumpsuits, sat at three desks drawing with pencils. They were asked to make self-portraits and use symbolism to portray themselves in the position they would like to be in once they are released.

Project Youth Artreach, a program that is part of the nonprofit county group Class Acts Arts, created the painting program this year. It is funded by grants from the Montgomery County Council, the Mead Family Foundation and the Carl M. Freeman Foundation.

Instructor David Amoroso of Arlington, Va., who works with Project Youth Artreach, introduced the inmates to art during the first class by showing them the paintings of legendary Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Amoroso wanted the inmates to draw themselves cloaked in success because, he said, visualization is the best road to achievement.

‘‘The most important thing is positive self-image,” he said. ‘‘I’m always trying to find what is marketable about an individual. With my art, I always like to create a striking portrait that tells something.”

Rawley Marmolejos, 18, of Silver Spring has spent nine months of a one-year sentence for auto theft in jail.

He said that although many judges think jail time will help inmates rehabilitate, they actually spend their time thinking about ways to perfect their ability to carry out a crime if they are not given something positive to do.

‘‘Your environment is being around people that were doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing,” Marmolejos said. ‘‘You feed each other negative ideas. If you’re in a program, it keeps your mind occupied and keeps you on a positive train of thought.”

Marmolejos expects to be released in November.

‘‘We need to offer alternatives to crime focused discussions,” said Arthur M. Wallenstein, director of the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. ‘‘Competition for individual prisoners’ growth and development is our challenge. We see it that way.”

Programs like the painting classes help individuals to look at the larger world, he said.

‘‘Jail is a perfect location to motivate people and encourage prisoners to see and experience a broader construction of reality,” Wallenstein said.

Suzy Malagari, deputy warden in charge of programs and services, said as the cultural makeup of the county has changed, more Hispanics are entering the jail.

She hopes the painting program can help the inmates appreciate their artistic sides.

‘‘It is important to give them an opportunity to express themselves,” Malagari said. ‘‘This is an outlet that a lot of them have never had the opportunity to experience before.”

The inmates will turn their self-portraits into paintings on canvas before the program ends.