TEHACHAPI — Art inspires us. It can help others see our lives and speak without written words. One story that often isn't told all in one place is from the perspective of incarcerated men, correctional staff and victims of violent crime.
But that changed via a mural named Tehachapi. It was led by the efforts of famous artist JR, and displayed on a grand scale at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi.
The mural is designed to tell the story of the rehabilitation of incarcerated men, show what the prison environment is like and help others not make the same mistakes that put the inmates behind bars.
Spanning more than half the square footage of a football field, the mural shows 48 current and formerly incarcerated prisoners and correctional staff looking up, standing together in different poses.
Although the project was completed in October and is no longer there, a photo of the mural was recently made available on social media. Viewers can download an app on their phone called JR: murals and click on each person in the mural to hear their stories.
“I chose Tehachapi without knowing it was a maximum security prison," artist JR wrote on an Instagram post. "I just thought that the yard and the surroundings would make a perfect image. The idea was to meet with men working on rehabilitation, and to also engage formerly incarcerated men, their family members, as well as the prison staff, and survivors of violent crimes."
JR is famous for his use of photography to capture people around the world. His murals center on themes that showcase individuals who normally wouldn’t be captured on film. He exhibits his work all over the world on buildings, walls and places where people can view the work for free, and even allows the public to participate in laying out the murals via wheatpasting, according to streetartbio.com/jr.
After photographs were taken of each person, 338 strips of paperlike material were glued to the prison yard. It took less than a day to install, said Nathan Pirtle, a REPRESENT JUSTICE Campaign surrogate and participant in the pastings at CCI.
The REPRESENT JUSTICE Campaign seeks to tell stories about people within the criminal justice system, break down stigmas, and “engage audiences and spark collective action to demand a fair legal system, dignity for system-impacted communities, and an end to extreme sentencing,” according to a news release from the REPRESENT JUSTICE Campaign.
“I believe that the mural brings hope, it brings peace, faith and unity," Pirtle said. He added, “I think this piece of art was created to bring this group of people together and show that they are human beings. I think sometimes we forget someone on the other side of the fence doesn’t feel like a human being.”
Others that helped organize the installation included One Community, a film, television, and new media company; CCI Warden W.J. Sullivan; and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
Those who participated in the mural hope to share that rehabilitation is possible despite the stigma associated with being in prison.
“All they see is our crimes or statistics like in the media, the news always brings. They don’t show what happened after, you know, the progress that we can make while we’re in here,” said inmate Aaron F. in his interview from the app.
He added, “I just hope that this program and what’s going on here reaches people and reaches younger people and not to come in here and it just — it brings a voice to the voiceless I guess you could say, which is a lot of dudes in here who — who are changing.”
Sometimes a person needs help to see their worth and feel they are important in order to be contributing citizens once released.
“The stigma is not unjustifiable. We are criminals,” 41-year-old Barrett Fadden said in an interview at CCI. He added, “The only stigma that I would say is unfair is that when a person comes to prison they are no longer valued. There is a lot of talented people in prison and it seems like they don’t know their own worth and don’t know what their true value is. And it seems like society reinforces that.”
Fadden, who was incarcerated and sentenced on the three strike law with 25 years to life, believes he and others can change their behavior, motivating others to follow their example.
Some incarcerated men at CCI have said they have worked on being better people by letting go of negative feelings, like hate and racism; developing a relationship with God, forming support groups; taking advantage of earning a college education; and participating in other positive work programs.
Sometimes negative environments — be it in families, neighborhoods, or prison itself — can influence a person toward going down a wrong path.
David Hampton Jr., an inmate at CCI for 20 years, said in an interview: “I’m not a drug addict. I’m not an alcoholic. I’ve got other criminal behaviors that without realizing it I’m addicted to ... I’m realizing that some of that stuff is just deeply ingrained in me.”
He added, “I’ve changed the big stuff a long time ago and now there is all this little stuff. So I’m trying to change all that.”
Staff at CCI see inmates who willingly take advantage of rehabilitation programs become better people. And once released, that can influence them to make choices that don't put them in prison again.
"When you see guys make a choice to do something better, to tell gang-related people, 'No, I'm not participating, I'm looking to better myself,' that's a success story," Lt. Elias Garcia, public information officer at CCI, said in an interview taken from the app. "When these guys are participating in programs, they're choosing a better path for themselves."