Maine State Prison Showroom offers crafts made by convicts

In quiet Thomaston, ME, a small handicraft boutique sits peacefully off U.S. highway 1. Boasting a spacious parking lot and competitive prices, the store attracts all kinds of visitorsfrom wealthy tourists looking for unique souvenirs to those seeking cheap décorall browsing the same display of carefully crafted woodworks and trinkets. Products range from cotton dog toys to full dressers to intricate Maine-inspired wood carvings, and at a fraction of the cost similar boutiques charge for such works of art.Of course, each item bought from the store comes with an emblem that, in the opinion of many, increases their value tenfold: “Manufactured in the Maine State Prison”.

Indeed, according to a news video released by the Maine State Prison and produced by Scott K. Fish, the wood products industry program, which produces the goods sold in the showroom, has maintained a strong presence in all five Maine State Adult correctional facilities since 1828. The Maine State Prison Showroom in Thomaston has been operating for over 80 years. In an email correspondence with The Echo, Maine Prison Industries manager Ken Lindsey discussed the specific qualities of the program that make it revolutionary.

“Woodworking is very unique for a maximum security correctional facility,” Lindsey said, “We have over 7,000 tools that are checked daily. We also have helped other states with setting up small product building. We have sent proto-types and  building standards to New Mexico’s DOC as they wanted to start building some small novelties and we were glad to help.”

Lindsey went on to describe the popularity of the program among inmates, and competitive application process it requires. “The industry’s positions are coveted and highly sought out,” Lindsey said, “Just like in the outside world, inmates turn in an application, they need approval from the Unit management Team to be eligible. Inmates need to be taking any anger management, substance abuse counseling and working with education on their GED and many inmates in our program are also taking college classes.”

The Maine State Prison in Warren is home to this unique woodworking program, while other correctional facilities around the state house their own craft industries. “We normally have 140 inmates plus or minus at any given time working in the program [in Warren], 100 plus are working in the woodshop while others participate in the Upholstery Shop, Finishing Shop, Machine Shop and Stockroom.” Lindsey said, “We work with the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, their craft room builds one of a kind pieces of furniture. We also work with the women’s facility at MCC, they make candles that we sell at the showroom.”

In the video released by the Maine State Prison, Bob Walden, a warden at the Maine State Prison in Warren, went into greater depth about the finances of the showroom. “Statewide, we take in an average of about $1.9 million a year, which offsets any expenses so we are a primarily self-supportive based on that,” said Walden. “In turn, unlike a private business, we’re not looking to turn a profit, we are looking to reinvest the money right back into the program, and increase more jobs and more work opportunities.”

For both Walden and Lindsey, however, the greatest accomplishment of the industries program is not the wealth it generates, but the rehabilitation it provides for inmates. “We try to make this program like it would be if an inmate was working outside,” Lindsey said. “They come in, punch a time clock, work on multiple projects. It gives them a chance to build something that a customer will purchase at the showroom and cherish for many years to come.”

Fred, an inmate at Warren, expressed in a video interview with Fish how appreciative he is of the woodworking program and his opportunity to participate in it. “There’s not as many positions open as there are people who want to be in them,” Fred said, “Working here, I think I’ve been here 14 months now, and it’s the longest I’ve ever held a job in my life. That’s got me excited, you know, for when I get out.” Fred’s last name was not disclosed in the interview in accordance with Maine law protecting the identity of inmates.

Lindsey described his excitement at the success of the program among past offenders, and full belief in its benefits. “The inmates are proud to tell their families that they are contributing to a positive program,” Lindsey said,  “I think working with wood can be therapeutic. The recidivism rates of inmates who have participated in our program are lower than the national average, being in this program for almost 20 years I don’t see many inmates reoffending and returning to the facility.”

This pride for the program felt among both inmates and prison administrators is visible in the Thomaston store, which proudly displays a comical prisoner attached to a ball and chain on its logo and sells several prison-themed knick-knacks. Some of the best-selling items within the showroom boast that they “come from Shawshank”, the fictional Maine state prison that appears in Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and ultimately in the film adaption. Indeed, prisoners and shoppers alike take pride in the rehabilitative measures the state is taking.

In the video produced by Fish, Walden described the positive response he has received from shoppers who leave the Thomaston showroom thoroughly impressed. “Often times, the suggestions that we get [from showroom visitors] is that they wish their state had a program similar to this,” Walden said, “that both benefits the customers on the street, but also they see the value in meaningful work and how it can be a rehabilitative tool [for inmates].”