David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial

Inmate Mural Part 3: Beacon of Hope in a Women’s Prison

Differences between male and female inmates are revealed thru the mural project

Posted Apr 08, 2014

The first three posts in this series described mural projects with men’s prisons [Prison Murals: Inmates and Crime Victims Create Together; Inmate Mural Arts Program Part 1: Transformation Thru Unity, and Inmate Mural Part 2: Escape from Alcatraz/Escape Through Art]. This final post tells of an IMAP project where the dynamics were different but the results were quite similar—a mural conducted in a women’s prison.

In the summer of 2009, two Florida State University Graduate Art Therapy students, Lauren Delaney-Belgrade and Sarah Milam, who had most recently completed their practicum experience in a nearby women’s prison, decided they wanted to conduct the next IMAP project in their former site. The associate warden, a former criminology professor in charge of the institution’s programs, not only allowed it, she was enthusiastic about it. She strongly believed in the power of art in helping the population address their myriad of issues.

While the administration was completing this project’s negotiations, Ms. Delany-Belgrade and Ms. Milam began to meet with the newly developed IMAP team—around 12 female inmates chosen by the art therapists and the associate warden for their passion and affinity for art making and few incident reports.  They discussed themes, and collected sketches on what the participants would like to see in this mural.

sketch for mural

sketch for mural

After the sketches were developed, Ms. Milam and Ms. Delany-Belgrade collected them and developed several composite sketches for the team’s input. After consensus was reached on which final image would be used a color version made and copied for all participants to use as a map. One of the most striking features of this image was that the individual frames of the filmstrip were left blank. I’ll explain this more later …


final color sketch for mural

final color sketch for mural

 Similar to the first men’s mural it was requested that this mural be painted on the front of the prison chapel. Although this facility, which had a strong commitment to the arts, had several outdoor and indoor murals completed, this would prove to be the most ambitious so far. The chapel wall, facing the main area of the prison and at the end of a long walkway, measured 22X70 feet–the longest one attempted by an IMAP team yet.

This mural was also the first one that received public donations to help fund such an extensive project. An owner of a local towing company provided monetary funding and supplies for this mural’s completion. Lowe’s and a local paint store donated paint and brushes.

Scaffolding was set up, and the line sketch of the final drawing was projected and transferred onto the chapel wall one dark evening. Not only did the entire IMAP team take part in the transfer, two indispensable contributors also were on hand to help this transfer–the facility’s associate warden and its school’s principal [who proved herself an untiring supporter of this project and was involved with its creation from beginning to end. In the words of Ms. Milam and Ms. Delany-Belgrade, “this project would not have happened without her incredible help”].

beginning the mural...

beginning the mural...

working on the mural

working on the mural

The number of volunteers surpassed expectation; rather than have them all on the scaffolding a the same time, Ms. Delaney-Belgrade and Ms. Milam split them into two groups and ran morning and afternoon sessions for several weeks. The work was intense, intermittently battered by tropical storms in between extreme heat from the unrelenting, inescapable sun.

Oh, one other interesting development; a large lamppost several feet in front of the chapel wall that made for quite a distracting eyesore that dissected the image with its glaring white metal finish. The artists decided they would paint the lamppost as well; when the viewer gets to a certain point on the path that led to the mural, it would seamlessly blend into the wall. A line was painted on the path where a viewer would have to stand. One showed me where this line was so that I could see how it worked. There was one problem—the person who painted the line on the path was considerably taller than I was. I couldn’t see it the way she did. However, in backing up a few paces, the post did indeed blend beautifully… 

Dynamics revealed—dynamics strengthened

Similar to the men’s group, all were eager to take part in the project; however, the dynamics seemed different—while the men were focused on the final product, these women focused on their relationships and the process of actually painting it. They examined their own insecurities, developed clichés within the group, often times argued with each other, other times demonstrated undying loyalty. In short, they acted more like a family—complete with factions, differences, jealousies, allegiances, mutual respect and unpredictability. Some of the women demonstrated a stronger persona, seen as the ‘mothers’ of the group, or the dominant figure, others were more like dependent followers.

However, unlike the men who championed the teamwork and unified vision, the women’s group added an element to the final painting that celebrated their growing sense of identity and individual achievement. Each artist was given a frame of the filmstrip to fill in as they saw fit. While the lighthouse may symbolize a beacon of hope, the filmstrip underscores each artist’s personal stories. The mural helped them develop problem solving and socialization skills; it also allowed them to cultivate their own individuality. The women walked away from the final project recognizing they were part of a larger group while maintaining their own sense of worth.

 Beacon of Hope

The final mural: Beacon of Hope


Since this projects completion, the IMAP has been in limbo; however, I anticipate the day, with excitement and enthusiasm, that a current or former student will come into my office, and ask, “say, about that IMAP program…I have an idea…”

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