- Associated Press - Friday, April 25, 2014

VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) - Long, purposeful brush strokes in brown and gold hues cover the lengths of the sheriff’s office walls, and in the far left corner of the room there stood the shadow of the painter, working to handcraft the decor.

The artist, who is in the process of hand painting at least six murals at the jail, isn’t the typical professional you’d expect to see at work here.

He is, in fact, an inmate.

Tommy Earl, of Vincennes, has been incarcerated in state and county facilities for the last 16 years on drug charges. Though he now has just one eye, and is losing his sight in the other, painting remains his life’s passion.

“He’s been painting in the back, in the incarcerated area, and you can tell he’s highly talented in the arts,” Sheriff Mike Morris told the Vincennes Sun-Commercial (https://bit.ly/1rt7Ajv ). “Since we are repainting, and he had inquired about it numerous times, we decide it would not only be for his benefit but it’d be a cost savings for the county because we’re getting these professional paintings that would cost thousands of dollars without a penny out of our budget.

“He’s been in the state Department of Correction and I understand he’s done artwork for them as well, and he has done a fantastic job for us,” Morris said of Earl. “It’s all freehand, there are no diagrams. He’s incredibly talented.”

Earl said leaving his mark on the facility is something to be proud of, something that will help him move forward once he’s released later this year.

“I was told I’d be completely blind eight to 12 months ago, I should not have my vision, I should be blind, but I’m not, I can see today, and while I can I want to leave some sort of mark, what an influence and responsibility that is, and that’s so important for me,” he said. “In a few months I can watch my daughter walk down the aisle, I can see my grandkids, I can have something, that when I can’t see, others can appreciate.

“It’s something I can show my kids, and they can be proud of it, because there’s not been a lot I’ve done to make them proud in the last 16 years,” Earl said. “That means more to me than anything.”

To rehabilitate inmates, giving them purpose beyond their inherited drug culture helps to create a solid foundation once they’re released, he said.

“This program gives me something to look forward to when I wake up, gives me a purpose, a task, an opportunity to succeed to avoid coming back,” he said. “In the last 16 years, I’ve been out for 91 days - 91 days, three months, that’s it.”

Earl said in the past he hadn’t been ready when he was released to deal with life on the outside.

“Things have changed so much, I didn’t know how to get a job in today’s world, and I had no one to speak on behalf of my work, I got stuck again,” he said. “Now, no matter the job, I can say to an employer, ‘You can call Sheriff Mike Morris, he’ll be my reference,’ because he can at least account for my work ethic, and I’m so grateful for that.”

Morris said creating unique rehabilitation programs using specific talents and interests help inmates avoid coming back into the system.

“Anytime you can keep them busy, keep them working so they can see it’s not so bad, then they can go out and go to work, get real jobs, become productive members of society again helps,” he said. “You’ll be tempted, there will absolutely be those temptations, but this is something you can do, this is something you’re capable of, and I think it’s something you enjoy doing.”

While he’s painting the murals, Earl has also been working to repaint the doors and create an overall more professional environment with personal touches throughout.

“If I can paint, I’m going to paint, it’s really that simple,” he said. “It’s not just painting, it’s artwork, it’s my influence, it’s my responsibility.

“And that’s something to take pride in.”


Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, https://www.vincennes.com

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