My wife and I received a cutting board as a wedding gift.
Our friends went off the registry for this particular piece of craftsmanship. Not because we needed another cutting board (we don't) and not because it was a beautifully finished handmade gift (it is).
They bought it because it came from prison.
For more than 80 years, the Maine State Prison Showroom has sold handcrafted wooden gifts made by inmates.
Year after year, Mainers and vacationers alike flock to Thomaston, Maine, (or the outlet shop in Windham) to check out the latest in affordable, handmade homegoods — everything from jewelry boxes and chairs to toy trucks and model ships.
And it's all created, designed, and built by inmates at the Maine State Prison.
It's a remarkable correctional program with positive benefits for the public and the prisoners alike. And it's working.
Unlike other prison work programs, which tend to rely on gruelling manual labor for corporate benefit, the Maine State Prison program gives inmates a chance to gain real-world skills that will help them contribute to society once they've been released.
For one thing, the inmate workers have to earn their way into the program through staff recommendations, competing for a limited number of highly coveted positions in the woodshop.
“You have to get along, learn people skills. When you get out, on the streets, you might have someone you don’t like, but you have to work for them,” explained shop manager Ken Lindsey in interview with the Portland Press Herald. “When they get out, are they all going to become woodworkers? Probably not. But they’ll build skills, as long as you’re willing to learn.”
Each inmate worker is paid a wage between $1 and $3 an hour — about 3 to 4 times more than most prisoners.
While most of this money goes directly to court restitution fees and child support payments, there's usually a little bit left over for the inmates to keep themselves — something to show for a hard day's work.
As a result, the state-run program is entirely self-funded, bringing in nearly $2 million dollars in revenue each year. And all that income goes right back into the program, helping to pay for supplies and creating more employment opportunities.
And instead of hammering away at license plates or digging holes out in the heat, the inmates are doing something practical that they can take pride in — something that benefits the public instead of corporate interests.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that America still has a serious prison problem.
Statistics show that nearly half of ex-convicts end up back in jail.
That could reflect poorly on the effectiveness of the American correctional system. But in a country that has more prisons than colleges or universities, where for-profit companies make billions of dollars each year by exploiting unpaid prison labor, and where it's nearly impossible for an ex-convict to get a job after their incarceration — well, why bother, right? One mistake, no matter how small, and you're set to fail for life.
But if we gave those people a second chance instead, it could make all the difference.
Just ask Vic, a former inmate worker at the Maine State Prison woodshop.
He was released in 2011 after 35 years — and he's spent the last five years working at Mystic Woodworks in Warren, Maine, applying the skills he learned behind bars for a full-time job. “He’s constantly on the go, constantly doing his job," says Jamie Doubleday, who co-owns the company with her husband Ray. "He’s a perfectionist that’s perfect for what we do. We feel blessed to have the stars align and have that man do what he does.”
As for Vic himself? He couldn't be happier. "My life has never been better," he says with a laugh to keep from getting too choked up. "And it’s all because I ended up in Maine and got in trouble.”
Here's a short documentary about the program from the Maine Department of Corrections: