‘It’s amazing what they can do with just a pen or colored pencils’
By Aedan Hannon | Herald Staff Writer
The pale walls of the La Plata County Jail hold little life.
Their beige cinder blocks do little to reveal the humans who live within their thickly coated confines. But in the central hallway leading to the main cell blocks a series of posters capture the lives of those staying there and speaks to the creativity held within the jail’s walls.
In one, a thickly maned lion looks down at his cub, the grass behind them waving and the sky dancing with clouds.
To its left, a knight kneels, the point of his sword touching the cobblestones, textures of shaded light leaking through the window.
And in yet another, a bear roars, the lines of its fur crisp and dark. The animal has a regal quality, handsome yet ferocious, surrounded by a bald eagle and a rose.
All could appear at a gallery on Main Avenue. All are done by inmates housed at the jail.
About a year and a half ago, deputies with the detentions division of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office began holding recurring art contests for inmates at the jail. The aim of the contests was to provide a positive outlet for inmates while building rapport between deputies and detainees. The competitions now draw a small, but devoted following of inmates who seek the winning prizes of a spot on the wall and a poster in their belongings.
“There’s not a lot of excitement in the beige concrete,” said Deputy Patrick Scales, who helped start the contests. “A lot of these pieces the guys know who did them and they get inspired.”
When the contests first began, deputies held them every month. Over the last couple of years the length of the contests have fluctuated with the interest of inmates and the availability of deputies amid staff shortages, but a contest is always going on.
“When one ends, we start another one,” Scales said.
Scales and now Deputy Lorenzo Albo, who is taking over for Scales as he transitions to another role, give the inmates a theme at the start of every contest. In the past, themes have included religion and strength, honor and loyalty.
“It’s all the big philosophical stuff for the most part, just to try and get guys who are maybe not used to thinking that way to start thinking that way,” Scales said.
One of the most recent themes diverged from the more serious topics, adopting Snowdown’s “magical mystical” theme in a lighthearted twist.
Typically, inmates have 30 days to complete their work on 8-inch by 10-inch paper. When the contest ends, Scales and Albo hang up the artwork in the jail’s break room and staff members vote on the best piece. Staff select one winner for the jail.
Deputies take the winning piece and make two 24-inch by 36-inch posters. They hang one copy in the central hallway that leads to the cell blocks and place the other copy in the inmate’s belongings for him or her to keep or send to family.
Any inmate can participate, from those in maximum security down to inmate workers.
However, there are a few caveats.
Inmates cannot draw anything offensive, gang-related or that glorifies drugs or violence. They also must be in good standing and uphold the jail’s handbook. If an inmate receives an incident report, he becomes ineligible to submit an entry in the contest.
Scales said there have been cases in which inmates facing disciplinary action spend the entirety of their time in segregation working on their artwork in preparation for returning to their cell blocks so they can submit their work.
Inmates also must use what they have on hand or can purchase through the jail’s commissary, limiting their utensils to pencils, pens and colored pencils.
“They’ve got to be inventive and creative with how they do it, which also forces them to problem solve,” Scales said.
Some inmates draw their artwork, others rely heavily on shading. Some inmates even use stippling, when numerous small dots are used to create a picture, Scales said.
Inmates will employ any means they can to improve their work.
“They’ll use paper for shading, they’ll use tissue. They’ll use anything to try to make artwork look good,” Albo said. “It pays off. They do an amazing job.”
“It’s amazing what they can do with just a pen or colored pencils,” he said.
Interest in the contests fluctuates as inmates come and go, but each contest will feature six to 10 entries. Among inmate participants, the contests have built a devoted following.
“I get guys that as soon as they see me enter a cell block or during head count, they show me their artwork,” Albo said. “They ask me what the new theme is or what next month’s theme is going to be so they can prepare for it. It’s pretty awesome to see their drive.”
The art contests began in late 2020 after Capt. Ed Aber, head of the sheriff’s detentions division, asked Scales to start an art contest program. In addition to making the concrete walls of the jail look better, the goals of the program were to help deputies with their duties while adding some positivity to the lives of the inmates.
“We had a very challenging inmate that was actually a really good artist and seeing some of his work gave us an opportunity to utilize his talent to modify his behavior, to focus on something positive instead of just the negatives,” Aber said. “(The art contest program) creates a little more pleasant environment and it gives them something to do that’s focusing on some talent as opposed to dwelling on their situation.”
While Scales estimates only about 10% of the jail’s roughly 130-person inmate population participate, the contests make a difference for those who do.
“Those 10% tend to think it’s pretty important. It’s something that they’re able to do because of their talent that nobody else in the facility can do, so they put value on it,” he said. “A lot of guys come in here and they’ll do their time sleeping and watching TV. The guys who put in for those contests do something more constructive with their time and they’re more thoughtful.”
Benny Watts is one of those inmates who has entered the art contests, and his drawing of the bear won the strength, honor and loyalty contest.
Watts, who is serving time in the maximum security cell block, was encouraged by his fellow inmates who argued that he was already drawing for them so he should submit his work for the contests. Using a pencil over two days, he drew while his cellmates threw ideas at him for what he should include.
“It was more of a (cell block) pod thing, like a little family,” he said.
For Watts, who has enjoyed art since he was a child, the contests and drawing offer a break from life in the county jail.
“It’s something to do,” he said.
With no formal art training, Watts’ art comes “all from the head.” The credit and the admiration from inmates who see his artwork in the hallway stand out most from the contests, he said.
“The art thing is a good way to get your name out there and put it on the wall,” he said.
When deputies showed Watts his poster after the contest, the response was overwhelming.
“I’ve never seen this guy smile so big seeing his art on that poster,” Albo said.
Watts plans to give the poster to his sister so she can hang it at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Sunrise Youth Shelter in the hopes of inspiring the young people there, he said.
Because of the example Watts and other inmates have set participating in the art contests, others are now hoping to join, Albo said.
“It’s good positivity for these guys,” he said. “(The art contests) make them look at something different instead of the time that they’re doing here.”
The art contests also make a difference in the work of the detentions deputies by building relationships between inmates and deputies.
“They just want to show off their artwork, which is awesome, and it builds such good rapport with these guys,” Albo said. “It gives you an opportunity. If they were to ever have a bad day, you can be the deputy to step in and be able to help talk them through it.”
In the jail, there is often a divide between deputies and inmates, between those on different sides of the walls, but the art contests help to bridge that gap.
“There’s some guys that never would have talked to me in a million years and this (art contest program) changed all that,” Scales said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re buddies, but when they have a bad day in court they’re more inclined to talk to you.
“It humanizes us and makes it a little bit easier for us to manage people,” he said.
For Watts, the art contests have had that effect.
“These two (deputies Scales and Albo) were pushing and pushing,” Watts said. “They’re good people even though we’re on two different sides of the wall. They try to create everybody equal.”
In turn, the deputies find themselves helping inmates and pushing them toward careers in graphic design and art.
“We find those little diamonds here and there, and I always try to steer him toward that as a profession,” Scales said. “It’s a marketable skill that very few people are excellent at. We’ve had a lot of guys come through here that are absolutely excellent at it.”
Scales and Albo plan to fill both walls of the cell block hallway with the future winners of the art contests. Once those are full, they will move to other areas of the facility, both to breathe life into the bland walls of the La Plata County Jail and to continue encouraging and inspiring inmates.
The jail’s art contests have been a broad success and what little the detentions division must invest in time and money is more than worth their weight.
“Those prints are like $15 apiece to get done,” Scales said. “What we get out of them and what they get out of them is worth way more than $15.”
Albo said the contests are achieving what they set out to do by engaging inmates and adding meaning to their stays while building the relationships that are crucial for keeping the jail safe.
“It’s definitely serving its purpose,” he said.