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Beautiful scenery in a peculiar place

As a part of broader reforms, the “Art in Max” project marks a small part of the beginning of the transformation of solitary confinement in Washington State prisons


The work happening in Washington transforms the environment in a maximum custody setting through vibrant murals mark a shift toward the creation of a humane system.

Photo/Washington State Department of Corrections

By Sean Murphy

In a place not typically seen as a gallery where art would be displayed, a refreshing change is happening. Vibrant murals stand out against the stark, imposing structure. Dubbed “Beautiful Scenery in a Peculiar Place,” this artwork captures paradoxical beauty within the walls of confinement. It marks a small part of the beginning of the transformation of solitary confinement in Washington State prisons.

One of many initiatives going on within Washington State DOC to transform the agency into a more humane system, the statewide ”Art in Max” activity was originally conceived as a therapeutic project at eight major DOC facilities. This work has evolved into a group effort between unit leaders, staff and incarcerated individuals. Throughout the activity, everyone involved found a sense of respite in sharing their collective imagination, turning a restricted environment into a lively world of color. The intent is to make the environment more humanized and get folks thinking about their past, where they are today and the efforts they might employ to move to a better tomorrow.

The entrance of the program room greets incarcerated individuals and staff with “Fortitude” — a symbolic representation of hope in renewal and transformation, depicted by a path leading deep into a vast, unknown forest. “Surrounding Positivity” brings a soothing Arizona red rock centerpiece surrounded by a flowing river, serving as a safe refuge from the confines of the prison.


Photo/Washington State Department of Corrections

“Mountainous Hope,” a striking artwork in the common area, presents a reflective lake adjacent to a snow-capped mountain, emblematic of resilience and introspection. The art, becoming a testament to the potential for recovery and self-discovery, transforms sterile surroundings into a spontaneous, creative gallery.


Photo/Washington State Department of Corrections

The Washington Corrections Center for Women is not the first of the maximum custody living units in Washington State to make this simple transition. Other WADOC prisons like the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington, and Clallam Bay Corrections Center near Forks, Washington, have also made this decorative transition. The little differences like this make a big impact in a culture-changing activity.

Other environmental changes include the construction of recreation space outside of the high-security units, a place where residents can see the horizon, the sun and trees outside of the facility fences. Recreation spaces in these buildings are typically enclosed within the building surrounded by 25-foot concrete walls that only permit individuals to recreate alone, without many external views.

The changes are noticeable as we find alternatives to solitary confinement with meaningful out-of-cell activity and when appropriate, a chance to engage with others face-to-face.


Photo/Washington State Department of Corrections

Washington has contracted with top-tier experts to generate a 160-page plan to reduce solitary confinement by 90% over five years. Industry experts include project/change management from ISG-Integrated Solutions Group, clinicians and other corrections practitioners from Falcon, and a partnership with Dr. David Lovell from the University of Washington to help bring this work to life.

The plan calls for improved staff training and higher staffing ratios to facilitate movement and improvements in quality out-of-cell time. It calls for expanded access to risk-reduction programming in general population for all incarcerated individuals, and proactive identification and triage into evidence-based programs for those at risk of placement in solitary confinement. It calls for options and alternatives to placement in solitary confinement conditions following incident response in general population. It also calls for greater efficiency of movement through the system, with opportunity for diversion, access to out-of-cell programs, and step down for gradual reentry back into general population.

Notably, this initiative has triggered a debate on the rehabilitative power of art, and the necessity of novel approaches to high-security incarceration. These murals, although birthed in captivity, symbolize an enduring pursuit of beauty in the most unexpected places.

What people hear, see and smell in any environment can have a lasting impact. Clean, well-lit places with art adorned in targeted spaces were absolutely needed to help foster the change we desire. Doing work like this aids in stress reduction, anger management and emotional healing that contributes to improved mental well-being for both staff and inmates. Engaging in art also promotes skill development and enhances cognitive abilities helping some to develop a sense of accomplishment. It promotes a more rehabilitative and humane approach to incarceration.

About the author

Sean Murphy, MPA, ACHE, is the deputy secretary for the Washington State Department of Corrections