ELOY – The prison squatted in the southeastern Arizona desert is as drab as the vegetation and soil that surrounds it, giving way to a room inside painted in bursts of California scenes: of skyscrapers, surf and Interstate 5, Hollywood movie reels, the Oakland Raiders and Cesar Chavez.
Consider the inmates at La Palma Correctional Facility in Eloy as the prison’s Picassos, who painted the four walls of a multi-purpose room in rural Arizona into memories of their California home. The inmates, who were transferred to Arizona as part of a contract with the California prison system, are in a drug- and alcohol-treatment program.
A program manager encouraged the inmates to discover what fuels them, what represents who they are. The facility’s multipurpose room became their canvas.
The La Palma inmates decided to morph the room into a mural depicting their home state. Along the way, the art turned into something more.
Who they used to be
Andrew Valencia doesn’t say why he’s at La Palma. Back in California, before prison, he was a warehouse worker.
Juan Ulloa, his fellow inmate and artist, painted hotel-room walls in Orange County. Together, behind bars, they and other inmates visualized a different life than the one they have now.
What they miss
Valencia and Ulloa joined three other men who painted the mural, choosing images that represented what they missed most about California.
“We started from the bottom from southern California to northern California; and tried to bring a little bit of home out here,” Valencia said. “We started with San Diego with the Camp Pendleton, and worked all the way up to the redwoods.”
The men transformed the white walls into a map of California, with their favorite memories as scenes.
“It took us from being incarcerated, feeling locked up, to feeling more like you are at home,” said Ulloa, who also taught himself to improve his spelling and writing while in prison.
The images in the murals are eclectic and encompassing. NFL teams like the Raiders and San Francisco 49ers, cars cruising down roads and political activists like Chavez are mingled with depictions of skyscrapers and the capitol building, along with celebrities like martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, musician Carlos Santana and prison counselors – who are not famous but whom the mural artists see as heroic.
“It brings back a lot of memories of California, there are murals everywhere. It’s like home away from home,” Valencia said.
What they miss most is not portrayed on the walls, but inspired their work.
Valencia said thoughts of bettering his life for his 15-year-old daughter, back in California, fueled his artistic fire.
“My daughter is my biggest motivator. I changed my life for her,” Valencia said. “I also do this because I want to make her proud one day.”
Ulloa left behind a 10-year-old daughter in Orange County. He sends pieces of artwork to her about once a week.
How they were changed
Time in prison is punishment for La Palma’s inmates, but also offers challenges to live different, better lives though the treatment program.
“Those are actual people who work here that have effected everyone in one way or another; being there and giving them information and guidance,” Valencia said.
Unit manager Sawyer – who does not give her first name but organized the mural effort – recognized the inmate’s need to repent.
“You see these guys reaching out for an end to their situation, and they’re wanting to grow from it and they’re wanting to express themselves,” Sawyer said.
“It does give people an outlet to express themselves because with art there are no boundaries, no rules really,” Valencia said. “They can express themselves and communicate with people that they never would have communicated with before.”
Valencia and Ulloa, fueled by their love for creating, were tapped to teach art courses to other inmates in the Resident Drug and Alcohol Program.
“From people seeing us do this, they were inspired to draw,” Valencia said. “A lot of guys that we never even interacted with would ask us, ‘How did you do that, what made you do it?’ ”
The mural showed Valencia and Ulloa could inspire others.
“These guys went out of their way and really expressed what California means to them, but it also made a connection with each and every inmate that was in that unit with them,” Sawyer said.
Warden John Jackson said the mural gave the five inmates a sense of accomplishment.
“It teaches them discipline, it teaches them how to make a commitment to completing something,” Jackson said. “Some of the guys in the program may not have completed anything before entering the program.”
“They are able to actually learn something that they can take back and use into the community,” Jackson said.
Who they hope to become
Ulloa realized his life’s passion springs from creating black and white portraits.
“It’s something I look forward to doing in the future,” he said.
Valencia discovered a devotion to helping others while teaching visual art to people in his unit.
“I have reached some of my dreams in a way because I have always wanted to teach an art class, and I was able to do that,” Valencia said. “When I get out I want to help at risk youth and give them an outlet, be a mentor, and let them express themselves through art.”
“It has changed my life,” he said. “It’s motivated me to move forward and look forward to getting out one day.”
(Video by Tyler Fingert/Cronkite News)