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Maine Department of Corrections

Creativity behind bars

Lifestyle/Technology | Maine program shows what prison industries can do

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

THOMASTON, Maine-"Neptune's ride" sits in the window of the Maine State Prison Industries showroom in this town about an hour's drive from Portland. Carved from wood, Neptune is portrayed as a bare-chested, long-bearded, big-muscled biker, clad in blue jeans: He's holding with one hand a motorcycle handlebar and clutching a trident in the other. Behind him, sitting side-saddle, is a voluptuous mermaid with long, strategically-placed hair, and a tail that skims the "watery" base of the sculpture.

The large-as-life sculpture-if Neptune were standing, he'd be about 6 feet 4 inches-is an amazing bit of wood-carving, with shading to highlight Neptune's sixpack abs. The bike is carved in great detail, with a Harley motor, straight pipe exhaust, and a custom chopper tank painted in shades of neon orange, yellow, and blue. But it's amazing-and a testimony to Maine government's creativity-that "Neptune's Ride" exists at all, given the limitations on prison industry programs in most other states.

Prison industries aren't anything new. Most states run programs that employ inmates to produce license plates, garments, and furniture. The industries are heavily regulated-or "handcuffed," as Bob Walden, the manager of Maine's prison industries, puts it-at both the federal and state levels. A Depression-era federal law keeps prisons from taking part in interstate commerce: They can't ship prison-made goods across state lines. Laws in many states allow only government agencies and public schools to purchase prison-made products.

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The various regulations show an ambivalence toward prison labor. Private companies and labor unions fear unfair competition. Some human-rights groups fear exploitation, while other groups believe that useful work is part of prisoner rehabilitation. Most prison industries try to be self­sustaining. From the income generated through sales, they pay salaries, maintenance, and utilities. Depending on pay scales, prisoner salaries go toward restitution, child support, sometimes room and board-with a little making it into prisoners' personal accounts.

Maine is one of the few states that sells prison-made goods directly to consumers-but those consumers have to come into the store and buy on a "cash and carry" basis.

Crucially, the Maine program emphasizes hand-crafted wood products rather than the commercial-grade furniture fashioned in many state prison programs. Each year 30 to 40 products are retired and others created. Manager Walden says inmates often come up with ideas for new products-that might explain the birdhouse painted to resemble the state prison.

The 3,000-square-foot showroom-open seven days a week and year round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, and two inventory days in January-is barely big enough to showcase the 600 different products produced by inmates, most of whom live in the maximum security prison. Cutting boards, woodcarvings, ship models, jewelry boxes, and wooden cars, trucks, and trains line the shelves. All kinds of wooden furniture-tables, bookcases, dressers-are on display. Prices range from a couple of dollars to hundreds, depending on the item.

Walden says a plan to move the showroom into a bigger 10,000-square-foot facility, with easier access for buses, is on hold. He had hoped that "Neptune's Ride," carved by inmate Rod Whitten and based on a painting by David Mann, would be a permanent centerpiece in a larger space, but budget constraints have delayed that dream. The bad economy also means that sales are down, and that means fewer inmates are able to participate in the program. When times are good, 130-140 might be involved. Now there are 100, with 200 applications on the waiting list.

It's not easy for an inmate to be accepted into the woodworking program. He has to earn his way in with both a clean disciplinary record and evidence that he's following his case plan (often earning a GED or going to anger-management or substance-abuse classes). Inmates who qualify must then go through required safety courses both in the classroom and in the shop. Only then are they assigned to a crew and given particular products to make.

The woodshop has been around since the 1930s, and the existence of long-term prisoners, some serving 20 or 25 years, means continuity from one generation to the next. Walden says the staff can teach furniture building, but they rely on prisoners to pass on skills like woodcarving and ship building. Keeping track of tools is a major headache-although inmates work in the woodshop in three-hour shifts, by the time they go through metal detectors to make sure the tools are staying in the shop, only about two hours remain for actual work. Their pay averages $2 per hour.

"Neptune's Ride" had its genesis six years ago with a visit by an administrator of the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framingham State College who stopped at the showroom, saw the elaborately carved boat models, and had an idea for a scale model of the space shuttle Challenger. He asked if the prison woodshop could make one for him. Although the prison woodshop didn't do custom work, it made an exception and inmate Rod Whitten agreed to carve it. His success on that project led to a second Challenger model, this one measuring 6 feet by 4 feet: It hangs in the lobby of the planetarium in Concord, N.H. Then came a 9 ½ foot, 500-pound Mars Rover mounted on a mahogany base. Whitten's masterpiece is "Neptune's Ride."

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