ABOUT THE PROGRAM
A Faith and Character-Based dormitory is a unit within a prison where community partners, together with prison staff, work to effect spiritual and social change in the offenders.
The purpose of the program is to strengthen the inmates' resolve to change and provide an atmosphere for that change to occur. The goal is to reduce the number of people who commit new offenses and provide offenders an opportunity to re-enter society and become productive citizens.
Source: Georgia Department of Corrections
Hays State Prison inmate Lewis Gravitt often makes art for 10 to 14 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week.
With a group of inmates he makes 100-pound horses, greeting cards, sewing machines — pretty much anything asked of them — and all of it is made out of paper.
"It's my sanity," Gravitt said.
When he's done, his projects are sent to nonprofit organizations and family members.
Hays is one of 12 prisons in Georgia with a Faith and Character-Based dormitory for inmates who want to change, according to officials, and art is a component of the program. Each dorm has about 50 inmates.
"You hear faith-based, but the faith part is to say they have hope, they have faith in something," said LeThicia Davis, program counselor at Hays.
The program connects the offenders to the community, Davis said during an interview earlier this year at Hays.
"They want to let the community know that they've made bad choices, but they are about change and do want to give back," she said.
The program is open to all offenders, regardless of their faith or lack of it, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections website.
The goal, Davis said, is to provide the tools necessary for them to be productive citizens once they get out.
During their participation in the program, inmates learn skills such as how to operate a computer, write a resume and obtain their high school general educational development certificate, she said.
They also have speakers, religious and nonreligious, to help them work on coping skills, to heal broken relationships and with career development, she said.
"We believe in taking care of each other," said Davis. "Even in a level five institution, you can sleep at night."
As such, Hays State Prison houses offenders who are escape risks, have assaultive histories and may have detainers for other serious crimes on file.
It's a very hard and structured program, said Gravitt, who is serving a life sentence for murder and joined the program six years ago when it was in its pilot stage. The inmates don't watch television and spend most of their days taking classes or working on the art projects.
He said the program can help prisoners prepare to transition back into society someday.
"That's the main question. You really have to ask yourself that question: Are you ready for society?" he said.
"Because we have rules in the program now and, if one can't abide by the little simple rules, I can't see how they can expect you to abide by the big rules of society."
The inmates share a paper cutter they can only use in front of a guard or Davis. Everything else is cut with worn children's plastic scissors.
In six years, Gravitt estimates they easily have used more than 300 gallons of glue and truckloads of cardboard. They've made everything from toys to clocks and trophies for Relay for Life -- all made out of paper. For a 6-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide Victorian-era fireplace, they used eight layers of cardboard and about four gallons of glue, he said.
Their first project was a 2-foot-tall carousel that went to what is now the Open Doors Home in Rome, Ga. Gravitt used paper towel rolls for the center of the carousel and a ball from the tip of an underarm deodorant to make it spin. The paper horses are all handmade and hand-painted.
In all, he said, they put 800 man-hours into that project.
Six years later, it's displayed at the Girls Home dormitory.
"My first reaction to seeing the carousel was that this was simply amazing," Michelle Beatson, spokeswoman for the Open Doors Home, wrote in an e-mail.
"This beautiful carousel is a testimony, from those who created it, that anyone can reach a goal if you believe in yourself and put some effort into it," she added.
The groups that receive the artwork provide all the supplies and neither the inmates nor the prison makes any profit.
Although art is only a component of the program, Gravitt has taken it to a whole different level, said Davis.
Because of the quality of his work, demand is high. Sometimes, they can't keep up and even the counselors get involved to get the work out.
"We have assembly lines. I was cutting; they were gluing; someone was painting," she said, describing how they made cowboy hats that went to Texas.
Gravitt said he is always open to suggestions until he makes up his mind on what the project is going to look like.
He gets ideas for the art projects from photos of the objects or by the research that Davis does on the topic.
Among the first pieces he made were roses because paper roses last forever.
"When you send your lady real roses, all she does is watch them die," he said. "But when you give her paper roses, they don't ever die, they are full of life you put in them."
Every six months, the prison's common room looks like an art gallery. It's family day and the inmates in the program get to give their families the art projects.
"The artwork he does has touched a lot of lives," said his sister Ceci Ledford. "He is a free spirit; he's kind-hearted."
She hopes someday to get her brother's work into art galleries.
Gravitt said knowing that what he does will bring a smile to someone's face is all he needs.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...