CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — While still paying their debts to society, inmates at the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women have the opportunity to express their visions for brighter days — thanks to the help of Nashua's Manny Ramirez and Positive Street Art.
With the help of Ramirez, who serves as artist in residence for PSA, the modern prison that opened its doors just last year now has artwork on the walls of two of its highest security yards: The Reception & Diagnostic yard and the Secure Management Unit yard.
One inmate, going by the name of Katie, said Ramirez helped the incarcerated artists express themselves in a way normally forbidden, all while treating them as actual people with whom he could share work.
"He helped us express ourselves in ways that sometimes, we're not allowed to. We only have certain circumstances where we're able to do what we want," Katie said. "What I liked about him is, he didn't see us as just another inmate with a number. He treated us like regular people, like just another great opportunity to work with fellow artists."
"He was full of smiles every day and just kept encouraging us to keep going, even if we thought that we messed up," Katie added of Ramirez.
The Percent for Art Program, enacted through the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts in 1979, provides that 0.5% of the cost to construct a new state building will go toward implementing art. With the completion of the new women's prison last year, $75,000 was allotted for art. Some of this was used to retain Ramirez, who has been teaching inmates spray-painting techniques, which they used to complete their two murals.
With prisoners learning from Ramirez, who has more than 10 years of experience professionally painting murals, those who participated appreciated an experience beyond their normal routines.
"It gave us an opportunity to do something we believe in, and share what we're going through through art — about being locked up, our freedom, our passion and what we're doing," inmate Katie Wilson said.
With the murals based on nature themes and being painted in the high-profile security areas, Wilson said the images will help convey a sense of ease that the situation is not as bad as it seems.
"Being able to work together and help the girls coming in to know that there is a way to be able to get through it and know that it is going to be OK," Wilson said. "I think (the nature theme) is good because it says that it is not going to be a feeling of being locked up. You know you can work through the system and not be the system. It's going to be OK."
Wilson said the project, which is meant to have a therapeutic effect on new and high-security inmates, also helped change her outlook on life.
"When I first came here, I thought I was going to fall apart. And working with the girls I worked with, and working with Manny, and working with the art, it actually gave me the belief system that it is actually going to be OK because we know that there are dark days and there are bright days," she said."Working with our art and with our artistic talents, we have more opportunities, so it is actually really good for us."
Ramirez said the purpose of Positive Street Art was initially to reach out to at-risk youth in need of an outlet and inspiration. He said working at the prison has taken the nonprofit to another level, which he said was a natural evolution.
"We always wanted to help people who have been through it, and could use a little bit of inspiration and a change of pace," Ramirez said. "I'm just super humble and excited to be here to be able to help."
While the project began last week, Ramirez has spent this week with another group of inmates working on the second mural. Through the process of helping the inmates with their artwork, Ramirez said he has learned to be a patient teacher because he has been forced to sit back and watch the progress, while not being overbearing during the process.
"I'm used to being the guy painting," Ramirez said.
Although he hosts workshops in Nashua sharing the knowledge of his craft, this project was a more in-depth teaching opportunity.
"In this one, I'm supposed to be teaching, so I have to be patient and sit back and enjoy them doing the work instead of me doing the work," Ramirez said.
Officials at the prison said the experience was positive for all involved, helping those at the facility incorporate calming artwork while giving some inmates the ability to express themselves.
"It was a wonderful opportunity for the women to express themselves artistically in a pro-social way and to learn a new skill," Warden Joanne Fortier said of the experience.
"The value of calming art in our more secure areas — and the secure management area is our most secure area, our highest classification levels," Fortier continued. "The point of creating art in those areas is to serve as a therapeutic calming mechanism."
Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.nashuatelegraph.com