LARGO — There aren’t any clocks in the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center, so it’s easy to lose track of time.
The 14-year-old girl keeps this at the back of her mind mind as she focuses on the canvas in front of her, carefully painting a landscape of rolling green hills. She tries not to think about the dwindling minutes before she’ll have to pack up the oil paints strewn across the table and return to her daily routine as an inmate.
She has been here for about two months, she says, but she can’t be exactly sure how long. She doesn’t know exactly when she’ll get out.
But for the time being, this is the highlight of her daily life. Twice a week, for a little under two hours, she gets to come here — a room in a decommissioned module of the detention center where paintings, sketches, and prints line the cinderblock walls — and make art.
“It’s easy to get in your head and you can drive yourself crazy thinking about how much time you're here,” she says. “This lets you just take your mind off things for a while.”
The art classes are a relatively new offering for inmates. Since September, organizers of a local nonprofit called NOMAD have brought art classes to the detention center. .
“The state mandates what their school day looks like and art is not a part of their school day,” NOMAD founder Carrie Boucher said.
Before founding NOMAD, Boucher worked as an art teacher at Plato Academy charter school for a year. Her first time teaching at the detention center was a one-off printmaking session that was driven by her belief in art’s inherent benefits to childrens’ development.
During that first session, Boucher was struck by the level of interest shown by inmates.
“As wonderful as that was, it was also a symptom to me that something wasn’t quite right,” Boucher said. “It made me worry that they were feeling the effects of not having any sort of programming around the arts or creative expression.”
With the permission of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Boucher teamed up with art therapist Kinsey Rodriguez to begin teaching weekly art classes there last fall. After a fundraising push, they were able to ramp up the classes to twice a week a few months later.
NOMAD’s art classes will soon expand to the Tampa Juvenile Detention Center, Boucher said.
Ariel Veguilla, a detention behavioral specialist with the Department of Juvenile Justice, supported NOMAD’s classes in the JDC early on. Veguilla said the classes provide a space that doesn’t feel punitive, which helps inmates’ mental health.
“If the environment looks like a jail, they’re going to act like they’re in jail. But if you can create an environment where they feel good about opening up and taking advantage of the programs they have to offer, they’ll start acting like kids,” he said.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Boucher, Rodriguez, and two volunteers carried carts full of paints and brushes through the high-security checkpoint at the Pinellas center.
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Walking across the facility’s central courtyard, flanked by chain link fences and barbed wire, Rodriguez pointed out murals that students of the art classes painted. One depicts crowds of people raising fists and holding picket signs, which bear harmonious messages like “community” and “respect.”
“The kids wanted to make a mural about protest, so the compromise was that it would be a peaceful protest,” Rodriguez said.
On this day, six students were led into the art classroom by a security guard, wearing t-shirts with colors that correspond to the modules where they sleep. After their school day ends at 3 p.m., students can elect to participate in the art class — rather than another afternoon activity like playing basketball in the courtyard — as long as they’ve exhibited good behavior in the days leading up to it.
Several students had attended previous art classes and excitedly caught up with Boucher and Rodriguez, including one girl who has attended 10 sessions so far. For others, this was their first time in the class, and they spent its opening minutes sitting in silence. Rodriguez encouraged two of the veteran students to lead the class in a lesson about painting with alcohol ink, a technique they learned the week prior.
“We try to allow them to teach each other as much as possible because this is their space and something they have ownership of,” she later said.
The students became more relaxed as the class wore on, chatting with Boucher and Rodriguez and eating cookies the teachers brought from home. Several of the teenagers ended up in the JDC after skipping school and disobeying court orders related to their truancy. Towards the end of the class, Boucher asks the students about their best and worst moments from the past day.
“For me, the worst thing about today is my whole situation, being here. There’s a lot I wish I could change,” a 16-year-old boy said.
Teenagers without steady homes and those living in the foster system regularly end up here, Boucher said. When officers book juveniles on misdemeanor charges that would typically not warrant jail time, but can’t locate a parent or guardian to take the child back, they are taken here. Similarly, teenagers who repeatedly run away from foster care and group homes routinely end up in the JDC and regularly resurface as students in the art class, according to Boucher.
“Sometimes they’re not even in there because they committed a crime,” she said. “If you have a kid who doesn’t have parents to bring them home to in this county, where else could they bring them to make sure that they’re safe?”
Boucher hopes the art classes help provide solace to teenagers navigating the complicated judicial process.
“This is a place where everybody belongs and we’re all on the same level, including the adults,” Boucher said. “It can feel like there’s not much hope for you if everyone is telling you that you’re a bad person, especially as a teenager. We want show them that they aren’t bad people, they’re just people.”