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Inmates And MIT Students Team Up To Turn A Blank Wall Into A Lasting Experience03:48
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MIT staff, students, and members of the South Bay House of Correction community look at their progress on the mural. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
MIT staff, students, and members of the South Bay House of Correction community look at their progress on the mural. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

About a dozen women inmates — and just as many MIT students — have gathered in the activity room at South Bay House of Correction every day for the past few weeks.

“Before all this chaos it was very boring and dull,” says Allison Deshowitz, who has been in South Bay for six months. “And now we’re bringing some light to it.”

Together, the inmates and college students are learning how to turn a small image that Deshowitz and her peers designed into a massive two-story mural. It's a course to teach the group about scenic painting — and a little bit about collaboration along the way.

What they’re painting is hard to describe. There are walls, an eye, some jellyfish, and a puddle of water pooling under a tree.

The mural going up at South Bay is based on the surrealistic image the inmates designed. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
The mural going up at South Bay is based on the surrealistic image the inmates designed. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

Deshowitz adds that in the picture there's a door with sunlight and a sunset behind it. “I think it just explains how everybody in this room is feeling. Sometimes we feel hopeless and as we look at the picture we feel hope,” she says.

Hope is something that Deshowitz says she needs more of. Every day, she reminds herself not to give up. A drug addiction got her mixed up with the wrong kind of people and she found herself in jail about eight years ago — at the age of 19, the same age as some of the MIT students milling around.

MIT freshman Sherry Xiao says the mural evokes a different feeling for her. The section depicting a mother and child reminds her of family back in China. She’s lived away from them for five years to attend school in the United States.

“We will always feel like the child of our parents and they will always be thinking of us no matter what," she says. "That really touched me.”

Sherry Xiao, an MIT freshman, and Helen Read, an MIT junior, pour paint. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
Sherry Xiao, an MIT freshman, and Helen Read, an MIT junior, pour paint. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

Xiao says she’s learning about more than just new artistic techniques, like how to collaborate with people, share ideas, and also how to respect other people's ideas.

That’s one of the goals of bringing these two groups together. Set designer and MIT senior lecturer Sara Brown is teaching the course with South Bay arts teacher Peggy Rambach. Brown says that being in the same room is what matters, otherwise, “There would be no way to have these groups interact in the way that they are without having that common goal.”

Sara Brown, senior lecturer at MIT, is leading the mural process with MIT students and South Bay inmates. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
Sara Brown, senior lecturer at MIT, is leading the mural process with MIT students and South Bay inmates. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

South Bay has offered arts classes, like creative writing, for more than a decade, but Rambach says the mural project needed a partner. She and women's program director Christina Ruccio are part of the team that reached out to MIT to collaborate. Ruccio says programs like this help women leave better off than when they entered.

Ruccio stresses the importance of developing inmates’ and detainees’ life skills. She gives the examples of showing up on time, finishing something, working with diverse populations, and struggling with a project and figuring out the solution as skills that South Bay women need to develop.

Johanna Lopez paints a canvas that will be one part of a two-story mural at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
Johanna Lopez paints a canvas that will be one part of a two-story mural at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

For the past week or so since Deshowitz has attended this class, she says, “I was actually happy to be able to get up and know that I have something to do all day long.”

She says she has one more thing to look forward to. Once the mural is assembled in the jail, MIT will install a replica on its campus, along with an augmented reality experience. That means that soon, anyone will be able to see what Deshowitz helped create.

Allison Deshowitc looks at a reproduction of the mural the group is painting at South Bay House of Correction. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
Allison Deshowitc looks at a reproduction of the mural the group is painting at South Bay House of Correction. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

This segment aired on January 25, 2019.

Erin Trahan Twitter Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for The ARTery.

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