Penny Leslie works on a tropical mural inside one of the jail cells at the Mukilteo Police Station. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Penny Leslie works on a tropical mural inside one of the jail cells at the Mukilteo Police Station. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

No more staring at blank canvas in Mukilteo police holding cells

Bright murals now adorn the walls. The artwork is intended to calm and relax detainees.

MUKILTEO — If you want to see these splashy works of art, you have to break the law.

What’s up with that?

Murals adorn the walls of the two holding cells at the Mukilteo police station.

“Tropical Escape” has a Hawaiian theme with water, palm trees, volcanic cone and a rainbow. The other mural is “Mukilteo Sunset.”

The cells used to be standard stark rooms, with white concrete block walls for those sitting on the stainless steel bench (or toilet) to stare at.

After all, these rooms are for wrongdoers, alleged or otherwise.

The new murals are something you might see at a place welcoming visitors, not detainees.

Penny Leslie, with help from her cousin Lindsey Baker, works on a mural inside one of two jail cells at the Mukilteo Police Station. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Penny Leslie, with help from her cousin Lindsey Baker, works on a mural inside one of two jail cells at the Mukilteo Police Station. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The project was initiated by Chief Andy Illyn, who took over the department last October after 10 years on the force. He was inspired as a detective by a TED Talk about the power of interior design in public facilities to improve moods and spark joy.

Joy in a holding cell?

Why not.

“It is about treating people humanely. It is about trying to make people calm,” Illyn said. “Anything that we can do to make them relaxed or comfortable in a holding cell is good for the officer and for the person in custody.”

DUI is the most common offense, with occasional suspects held for crimes such as robbery or burglary.

“With intoxication, they are usually not thinking clearly, occasionally they can be emotionally unstable, they are frightened or depressed,” Illyn said. “Those are the people we want to calm down as much as possible.”

The holding cells aren’t to punish people, he said.

Most stays are several hours, or six hours at the most, while the detainee is processed for release or transfer to the county jail.

The cost was $800 for both murals. The money came from the station’s budget for professional services.

“The staff response was initially mixed,” Illyn said. “Some thought it was cool. Some thought it was a waste, and then I explained the science behind it.”

The Mukilteo waterfront scene by artist Amanda Murillo has a lighthouse, ferry, orca and large bright sun dipping into blue waves. Murillo, a Redmond middle school teacher and real estate agent, had done murals mostly at banks.

A mural painted by Amanda Murillo covers a wall in a jail cell at the Mukilteo Police Station. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A mural painted by Amanda Murillo covers a wall in a jail cell at the Mukilteo Police Station. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“I liked the idea of this,” she said. “I know a few people who have been incarcerated before. They thought it was a nice idea because it can be kind of a lonely place and to have something nice to look at can be inspiring.”

Penny Leslie, of Puyallup, painted the tropical mural scene reflective of her time in Oahu during her husband’s military service after he was a Mukilteo police officer for three years. You might recognize her from local art markets.

“It was a new experience painting a holding cell,” Leslie said. “I wanted it to be bright and happy. I know whoever ends up in that holding cell will be probably having a really rough day and night. We all have hard times in life, for sure.”

Some prisons have murals in common areas, but it isn’t widespread at the local level.

A Google search found a few murals at police stations from above and down under.

In holding cells at Tsuut’ina Police Service Station in Alberta, Canada, murals have culturally significant imagery and symbols of family, healing and encouragement.

The artwork is a way to “humanize incarceration,” a Canadian news story said.

Cousins Penny Leslie and Sidney Baker work together on a mural inside a holding cell at the Mukilteo Police Station. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Cousins Penny Leslie and Sidney Baker work together on a mural inside a holding cell at the Mukilteo Police Station. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Murals at a New Zealand station have grass, trees, birds and positive messages.

“Normally people are coming in here at all stages of drunkenness, drug abuse, distress,” an Auckland corrections minister is quoted as saying. “It’s never going to be pleasant, so the best that we can do is … encouraging a better environment.”

Teens at a Madison, Wisconsin, juvenile detention center helped an artist paint murals on the walls of intake holding cells. The artist’s statement said: “I can’t fix the system, but I can do my part to make it a little more bearable.”

Is there a person, place or thing making you wonder “What’s Up With That?” Contact reporter Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterbrown.

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