WOODLAND — The mural tells the children’s stories.
Spanning an entire wall of the C pod at the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility on East Gibson Road, the painting begins by depicting the youth’s hardships before arriving here — gray, forlorn-looking figures, their hands outstretched, faces grimacing in pain and despair. A thorny green vine snakes among them, seeming to trap them in their misery.
Shift your eyes to the right and you’ll find an image of a young man, a juvenile hall ward, lying on his back. Above him, two adult figures — detention center staff — and a father figure point other youths toward a horizon of open fields, rolling hills and a cloud-filled sky where sunlight is just beginning to break through.
“It’s saying, hey, there is a life out there. There is a vision,” says Brent Cardall, Yolo County’s chief probation officer. “That’s why we did this. We wanted to give them hope.”
Continue on and you’ll see the youths’ dreams for the future — a stronger connection with family, depicted by a girl touching her mother’s hand through a glass partition while imagining the two of them in a warm embrace. Cell doors on a cinderblock wall are opened to reveal the sky beyond, and two doves take flight above roses that have bloomed on the thorny green vine.
Designed by Maceo Montoya, an assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at UC Davis who hails from a family of renowned artists, the mural is one of numerous changes being made at the detention facility to create a more pleasant atmosphere for the youths incarcerated there.
“When I got here I thought, this looks like a jail. We need to lighten this up,” said Cardall, who arrived in Yolo County last July. He acknowledged that while the facility’s residents are accused of serious crimes, “they’re still kids.”
In addition to the mural, the C pod also features a new color scheme in which the stark white walls were replaced with warm red, orange and yellow hues — similar to those seen in model homes, Cardall said. Updated televisions and furniture have been added to make the environment feel more like home. Inside their rooms, youths now have designated space to hang their artwork or school projects.
Similar changes are in store for the facility’s A and B pods, which the youths rotate through every six months.
The improvements were triggered last summer by a site visit by Eskinder Negash, director of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which Yolo County contracts with to provide housing and services to youths under the federal government’s care. At about the same time, local officials toured other juvenile facilities in Alameda County and in Oregon.
Through feedback from these visits, officials concluded Yolo County’s 90-bed juvenile facility, which opened its doors in 2005, looked more like an adult jail or prison than an environment that seeks to rehabilitate troubled kids, whose ages typically range from 13 to 18.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement granted Yolo County $5,000 for supplies and labor to launch the transformation. Montoya, the muralist, began by interviewing both the youths and staff members for inspiration.
“What interested me about the project was that, even though murals are public, eventually they blend into the landscape,” Montoya said. “This is an instance where the audience isn’t able to leave — they’re literally a captive audience, and it was important to find imagery that spoke to them.”
He noted it also was important to feature the detention staff in the project because “their dedication, their commitment to the youth, was very inspiring. We were blown away.”
Montoya said it took him about two weeks to create the mural’s design, which he painted over a two-month period with the assistance of his father, fellow artist and professor Malaquias Montoya.
Future murals will be painted by Montoya’s mural class at UCD and by Carlos Jackson, an associate professor and chair of the Chicana and Chicano studies department, Montoya said.
The newly redecorated C pod welcomed its first residents earlier this month.
“We’ve already noticed a change,” said Craigus Thompson, the facility’s assistant superintendent. “They like it — there’s more ownership. They’re like, ‘I’m keeping this clean.’ ”
“It feels like a more fun atmosphere,” added Martin Munoz, a Yolo County detention officer for the past 10 years. “It’s something different than they had before. (The youths) like change, and we’re approaching it in a positive way.”
In addition to the cosmetic improvements, the juvenile detention facility is benefiting from a $4.7 million expansion grant that Cardall said will fund a new indoor gymnasium as well as improved visitation and treatment quarters.
“We plan on really revamping the way we do treatment,” said Cardall, whose goal is to provide family-oriented rehabilitation in which parents undergo the treatment process along with their children, learning crucial skills “to help us change their kids’ behavior.”
With entire families on board, youths are less likely to fall into their old patterns upon returning home, which in turn reduces their risk of reoffending, Cardall added.
In the meantime, work is slated to begin soon on redecorating the facility’s A and B pods, each of which will feature its own unique mural with input from current youth residents. “Each pod will have its own story,” Cardall said.
“That’s the hope,” Maceo Montoya said. “There’s just so many stories to tell.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at email@example.com or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene