Inmates in one section of the Olympus mental health facility at Utah State Prison are the first in the prison to experience a new approach to reducing anxiety, stress and violence in restrictive housing situations. A newly painted serene nature scene covers the wall in the Alpha section, bringing imagery of mountains, a lake, animals and trees into the facility.
The idea for the mural was suggested by Officer Jeremy Wilcox who read about similar approaches in other states, where inmates have access to nature videos or still photos of nature scenes with accompanying sounds during their time out of cell. Studies have shown that bringing images and sounds of nature into restricted housing, also known as solitary confinement, could be a way to reduce stress and violence that can occur within those settings.
Officer Wilcox asked for volunteers and inmate Darrell Kinyon quickly volunteered to help. Officer Wilcox then approached Recreation Therapist Christine Gonzalez, who taught art classes as part of the recreational therapy program at Olympus, to identify other inmates and help Kinyon find the supplies needed to be able to sketch and paint a mural.
Kinyon and Jesse Womack designed and painted the mural, which they estimate took about 250 hours. Due to separation restrictions in the unit, the painting had to occur when the inmates living there were in their cells. Kinyon researched the appropriate type of paint to use on concrete walls and began using his own painting supplies to start the project.
The inmates in Olympus are all being treated for varying degrees of mental illness. People in the Alpha section are the most severe. Staff and the inmate artists are hopeful this approach can bring some measure of improvement to the atmosphere of the prison environment and support efforts to improve their mental health status.
The study that sparked the use of these images in many state corrections systems was conducted in 2013 by a research team based at the University of Utah.