Autumn Krouse finds painting to be therapeutic and hopes others find healing in her artwork, too. 

That’s especially true of her latest creation – eight mandalas she recently painted within the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility.

One of eight mandalas – a geometric configuration of symbols – painted by Autumn Krouse within the Restricted Housing Unit at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility. The mandalas are accompanied by quotes (not pictured) that were created by the inmates through a program administered by prison officials and Jubilee Ministries. (Provided photo)

“A dear friend of mine who does tile mosaics around town was offered the project, but she is getting a master’s and is super busy,” said Krouse. “So she recommended me to the chaplain. Since Andy (a brother) passed away, I’ve really been pushing myself into my art, into painting, when I had no real other outlet for the pain and confusion.”

Krouse said she is going to therapy and finds painting to also be therapeutic, adding that since the traumatic and untimely passing of her brother Andy Dzwonchyk, who was shot and killed by Pennsylvania State Trooper Jay Splain in November of 2021, her creativity has increased exponentially.

“It was definitely a divine act that I sort of ended up in there,” said Krouse. “I think they thought I was a more established artist. But it has been since Andy’s passing that I have been pushing into it more.”  

Splain’s four officer-involved shootings, which occurred over a 15-year period and include two in Lebanon County, were all found to be justified by law enforcement officials. Splain still does, however, face civil lawsuits, including the shooting of Lebanon County resident Charity Thome in March of 2020. That civil trial is scheduled for late November in federal court in Harrisburg.  

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“We didn’t know any of her story prior to her coming in to paint the murals,” said LCCF Warden Tina Litz. “It’s great that this helps with her mental well-being, with her family dynamic and what is going on in her life.”

But the project was not just a way for Krouse to deal with her pain. The goal is for the artwork to be uplifting to the inmates and correctional officers, too. 

“The thought process with the project is to find ways to help de-escalate the minds of the inmates,” said Litz. “We hope they find this to be a conversation piece that can help them de-escalate so their reactions with staff will be lessened.”

There was also a desire for the COs to find solace in the artwork. “The mental health and well-being of our staff is also a top concern,” added Litz.

Krouse said she decided to paint seven mandalas on a 44-foot-long wall in the RHU and one in a smaller separate cell, which is typically used to isolate female inmates within that unit from the male prisoners. The mandalas are based on the works of Swiss psychologist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who founded analytical psychology.

“He discovered that people, his patients, were giving insight into their souls through their artwork,” said Krouse. “He would get up in the morning and create a mandala every day in a journal, a dairy. He believed these were a symbol of the self.” 

Litz noted that the RHU doesn’t have windows and therefore is an ideal location for people having a mental health crisis to decompensate their emotions. While the area is void of windows, Litz said the long wall in the RHU was painted in a drab color, so it made sense to spruce up to that part of the prison.

The view of the mural and accompanying quotes from within a cell in the Restricted Housing Unit at Lebanon County Correctional Facility. The murals were designed to promote mental wellness among both inmates and correctional officers. (Provided photo)

“Once we had (medical provider) PrimeCare onboard, there were certain areas of the facility that they were worried about us housing certain people with a mental health diagnosis,” said Litz.

Litz told LebTown there’s always a need to maximize use of the entire facility, especially when an individual needs a place away from the general population while experiencing a mental health crisis or as a place to house inmates to prevent the prison from becoming overcrowded. 

“We’re an older facility, limited in space and what you see is what you get,” said Litz. “The thinking was what can be done that’s not a burden on taxpayer dollars and to try and utilize all of the areas of the facility to the best of our ability. So the mural idea came about because it’s not a big (financial) lift to do that – especially if it creates a greater good for the population.”

Deputy Warden of Treatment Rebecca Davis said the second the mandala project started there was an instantaneous improvement to that section of the prison. (A mandala is defined as “a geometric configuration of symbols. In various spiritual traditions, they may be used for focusing attention of practitioners and adepts, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space and as an aid to meditation and trance induction.”) 

“Just even the primer that went on brightened up the area drastically. It’s not the most pleasant area to be in, but the hope is that with it being a brighter area with more colors it will kind of help with mood,” said Davis. “Hopefully, that will have a positive, stimulating effect on the population we have to put in there.”

There was poignancy in Krouse’s presence in the prison since most of her immediate family has been housed at LCCF at some point in their lives. She said they landed there due to mental health issues that were exacerbated by drug and alcohol use. 

“A lot of people, when a parent goes away to jail, have an abandonment wound,” said Krouse. “I thought about all the choices my father made that took him away from us so many times for so many years. I felt honored to walk into that place and paint for these people and then walk back out of there. It was a beautiful moment for my family.”

After Krouse painted the mandalas, she added quotes that were created by the inmates through a program administered by prison officials and Jubilee Ministries.

“Once or twice a year the chaplains get together and come up with a contest for the inmate population and give prizes – a little prize, a little incentive – to the contest winners,” said Litz. “The inmates created phrases to help uplift people, to boost positive thinking. She (Krouse) took them and put them on the wall to help people through their tough times.” 

Krouse said the process – which took about 10 full days of painting over a two-week period – was a mental challenge. There was one mandala that she decided needed to be repainted since the colors were too busy when paint was applied to the wall.

“I had to redo one section,” said Krouse. “Once I got the colors on the wall the colors were too intense for the space it was in. I left on a Friday night and thought I have to get back to their first thing tomorrow and make it right.” 

Then, unexpectedly, there was yet another family tragedy that occurred the first day she was on the job. 

“On the first day of painting, my absolute favorite cousin in the world passed away,” said Krouse. “It became super special to me that I was doing something that Shawn and Andy – who were dynamic individuals who were so alive and so much alike – would have appreciated. I did spend a lot of time weeping while painting. I was thinking about these tragedies that my family has known, so I can’t say enough about how much painting has helped me to cope.” 

While dealing spiritually with the death of a family member, she also had to fight off mental self-doubt that made her question her artistic abilities, even though she has completed a few paying gigs in the past. 

Autumn Krouse in front of the mural of eight mandalas, which she recently completed in the Restricted Housing Unit at Lebanon County Correctional Facility. (Provided photo)

“I think going into it I was very nervous and had imposter syndrome going into the process,” said Krouse. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t belong here and I can’t believe I am getting to do this.’ I felt inadequate, but the more I painted, the more I felt this is something I could do with my life. I can go into institutions and create these beautiful pieces of art for them.”

When finished, Krouse felt the process was a valuable learning experience for her. “It wasn’t easy but it reminded me I can do hard things and that I have a gift that I want to share with the world.” 

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...