Photo courtesy of Robert Igarta

Fourteen years ago, the cold concrete exterior of Santa Cruz County Juvenile Detention Center served only to predicate the severity of its interior. That year, the center was selected as one of three national test sites by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for a new juvenile justice reform program.

Fast-forward to today, and the hall is one of nearly two dozen nationwide that have been transformed into a creative hub for social and artistic expression.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation began in 1948 as a nonprofit organization committed to improving the lives of disadvantaged children, according to its website. Within these test sites, the program conducted research to determine the cause of what was considered to be the system’s inefficacy in curbing re-offending and rehabilitating its inmates.

What the research found was that only a small percentage of the youths were being detained for violent crimes, while many were being held before their court hearings, resulting in overcrowding and overblown expenditures.

In response to these findings, artist Emanuel Martinez and his former student Louisa Craft Jornayvaz, formed the Emanuel Project in 2011. The project, with Martinez’s guidance, has urged incarcerated youth to take their lives into their own hands, with the simple media of the walls and paint supplies.

According to hall superintendent Sara Ryan, without the collaboration of the foundation, the Emanuel Project or any of the other programs offered in the facility would not be possible.

Bonnie Dankert, the juvenile hall’s lead educator, emphasized the importance of providing a more rounded alternative for incarcerated youth.

“Most of the kids have stories laced with histories of unrecognized trauma, poverty, disenfranchisement and ongoing threats of violence. They are often from splintered families where alcoholism and substance abuse have impacted their lives,” Dankert said. “In many instances, gang culture has already taken a stranglehold, as well. These factors combine to create considerable challenges and require a collaborative approach, not just punishment.”

The finished murals, “Seek New Visions” and “Embrace Higher Learning,” were ceremoniously unveiled Monday at the Detention Center to the young artists, Martinez, the hall’s staff, family and friends. The murals were designed so that 80 percent of the work was done by the youth.

“Kids were eager to show their families what part of the mural they painted. Of course, they were amazed to see Emanuel add the finishing details to the faces,” Dankert said. “They observed how he figured out that he wanted the light to be shining on their faces.”

Emanuel Martinez, the project’s spearhead and visionary, is a muralist who contributed to the 1960’s Chicano Movement. His focus on indigenous empowerment in Latin American social movements is prevalent through cultural symbols and social realism in his artwork.

As a teenager, Martinez was incarcerated several times and used art to escape feelings of isolation and cultural dislocation. With support from a mentor, his career as a professional artist began to unfold when he took part in the Chicano movement headed by César Chávez and other prominent leaders.

“Emanuel Martinez is an artist of national significance. He created numerous visual art pieces to mark our country’s quest to bring equality to all people,” Dankert said. “In our continued efforts to work toward justice and equality for all, Emanuel reminds me that the struggle is certainly not over.”

In accordance with the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, the detention center thoroughly evaluated each juvenile it detained and reduced the hall population by 33 percent, using a risk assessment tool. Ryan said having a reduced population enables the staff to get to know the youth individually.

Working with the Emanuel Project, Dankert said, strengthens the youth’s ties to education while promoting self-reflection and interaction with fellow novice painters. Taking class time to study the artwork of Emanuel Martinez, while learning about his personal story, provides the youth with hope, inspiration and a form of restorative justice.

“Emanuel’s mentoring fosters a focused community scope where students can also have a therapeutic outlet to reflect. Our kids need more living examples of how to transcend obstacles, create new opportunities and ultimately return to their communities to give back to the people who need them,” Dankert said. “Emanuel Martinez is such an example of this change. I am grateful and honored to have him become a part of our kids’ lives. Undoubtedly, the beauty of his artwork instills cultural pride and expresses a theme of unity among us all.”