Mural project showcases prisoners’ talents in Cleveland

Thomas Jarma works on a painting of Jesus Christ at the Oliver J. Bell Unit in Cleveland.

Prison is not the place you would expect to find extraordinary artwork. However, the Oliver J. Bell Unit, located at 901 E. 5th St. in Cleveland and operated by MTC, is known for fostering creativity among its inmate population, with inmate artwork routinely displayed in hallways and common areas.

Four offenders – Thomas Jarma, Anthony McNeese, Juan Ibarra and Vincent Bakani – just completed the latest set of paintings for a mural project. One mural honors fallen military personnel while another offers an inspirational message.

An inspirational message with an accompanying lion is painted at the end of one hallway at the Oliver J. Bell Unit in Cleveland.

Jarma said he is grateful to MTC for providing him with the opportunity to paint.

“It has been an honor to paint the walls of the Oliver J. Bell Unit and hopefully put a smile on someone’s face. Thank you to everyone in the MTC Corporation. You have definitely made a difference in my life going forward,” Jarma said.

Not only does the art project give offenders a productive way to spend their days, it boosts confidence and self-esteem when they see how the artwork is received by other offenders, employees and guests to the prison.

“The most significant part of being at the Oliver J. Bell Unit was the positive affirmation that you receive daily from the welcoming and encouraging artwork that the walls contain, as well as the constant interaction with the staff and administration. It has been a helpful experience,” McNeese said.

Sheila Jarboe, executive secretary at the Bell Unit, says the prison is also in the process of creating a children’s center in the visitation room where there will be books, games, a Lego table, alphabetical flooring and a Looney Tunes-inspired wall.

Since most people will never have an opportunity to see these murals, the Bell Unit provided the following photos.

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.

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