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Long IslandTowns

Huntington nonprofit puts murals inside Suffolk jail visiting room, for kids' sake

Matt Burns, 27, an inmate at the jail

Matt Burns, 27, an inmate at the jail for a DWI charge, helps place mural onto wall in Suffolk County jail visiting room Tuesday morning in Riverhead, on Sept. 2, 2014. Credit: James Carbone

The visiting room of the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead, where 715 inmates can see friends and family one hour twice a week, was never an inviting place for children -- with fluorescent lighting, glass partitions and strict rules about touching.

But the room got a storybook makeover last week, with orange-suited inmates installing murals depicting animals frolicking in a landscape of rolling green hills and rivers. The walls behind the murals -- once a dreary beige -- had already been painted sky blue.

The murals were from Huntington-based Splashes of Hope, a nonprofit that normally works in hospitals and social service facilities.

"We go into some dark places, and this is one of the darkest," said Diana Fogarty, the artist who painted the murals and who is also Splashes of Hope's director of operations. "We tried to make a brighter environment that will give some hope and beauty and joy."

Babylon philanthropist Theresa Santmann provided about $20,000 for the project. She will also fund an upcoming plan to have youth inmates work with an art teacher to paint the jail's main corridor.

The giant rainbow in the new murals is to remind those who see it that good can come from bad, Fogarty said. The trompe l'oeil wooden window frames painted on the edge of each panel invite the viewer to imagine a world past the very solid jail walls.

As part of the project, at least 1,000 storybooks and stuffed animals will be distributed to inmates to give as gifts to young visitors. That appealed to Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, whose office oversees the Riverhead jail and another facility in Yaphank, with inmates in both serving time or awaiting trial.

"It's probably been a long time since that parent has been able to do something for their child," he said. Everybody will benefit from a more inviting environment, he said.

"Studies have shown that inmates with children, if the children come visit, it keeps the family together and helps the rehabilitative process," he said.

The inmates on the work crew -- most of whom were serving time for drug and alcohol offenses -- worked for more than an hour as Fogarty, Santmann and correction staff looked on and sometimes helped.

One inmate, Keith Surerus, 37, of Shelter Island, said he was a painter himself and praised the works for "giving this room depth."

Jail, he said, "is so sterile. Then you come in here, all of a sudden there's this burst of imagination and color."

His fellow inmate, Anthony Maynes, 23, of Coram, was hopeful the murals would make visiting day a little easier. "The kids are good at first, but they get agitated. There's not a lot for them to do," he said.

One panel drew his eye, showing a night sky with stars and a moon. Jail rules do not permit art to be hung in cells and he said he couldn't see much of the real sky from his window, only four inches wide.

"It gives me more of a feeling, a sense of the environment," he said. "It's like you're camping or something like that."Formal unveiling of the murals will be Tuesday.

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