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Inmates discover a purpose for their lives in the prison shops

By MELANIE PLENDA
Special to the Sunday News

March 18. 2017 5:46PM
Inmate Jesse Labrie said he hopes the skills he's developed in the prison's sign shop will help him get employment when he eventually gets out of prison.Convicted in 2004 on multiple counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault, the earliest he can obtain full parole is in 2036. (Melanie Plenda/Special to the Union Leader)

If you don't know anything about the hands that made them, you can look at the desks in the shop at 312 N. State St. in Concord with the intricately carved cubbies and file cabinets of gently hewn wood and see the craftsmanship.

It's safe to say that discovering that these products were made with hands that have traded drugs, robbed, and even killed might taint the way some view the inmate-made items up for sale in that New Hampshire State Prison showroom, or the ones that go out to university and government offices around the state. But maybe it shouldn't.

"A lot of the people here have never had a job before, so it's all brand new to them," said Alan Burgess, manager of the State Prison Sign Making & Engraving Services shop, one of several corrections industries run by the prison system and powered by the inmates who are taught trades and then produce products sold by the prison.

"So everything we're teaching them is ground up: how to work for a department or company, how to work with other people, what is expected of an employee - a lot of them don't even have their education yet, so they are doing that while they are doing this here."

Burgess said he definitely sees a change in most inmates as they start to master the skills necessary to complete the work at the prison woodworking, sign, upholstery, printing or license-plate shops.

"The intent of it is basically a vocational job training program and job skills program," said Ronald Cormier, administrator for Correctional Industries at the prison. "You know, sort of giving them those skills so that when they get out they have a better shot at finding and keeping employment - which is always a big factor in why people come back to prison, because they can't find or keep employment."

The vast majority of products made in the shops by the 250 inmates in the program are for state government or university clients, Cormier said, with only about 10 or 15 percent going to private buyers or businesses. The shop jobs are typically the higher paying jobs at the prison, but still only net an inmate $2.50 to $5 per day.

Inevitably though, a handful of inmates find they have a real knack for the work and start studying techniques beyond those required in the shop. A few of them even create and finish some more creative side projects that end up being sold to the public at the store.

And while the prison doesn't track these statistics, Cormier said anecdotally he's seen many an inmate go on to get jobs in the trades they are learning and even find employment with some of the companies commissioning the work from the prison.

As for how it benefits the prison, the program takes in about $2 million in revenue a year, and costs about $2.3 million to run, Cormier said. While they yearly lose money, Cormier said he's constantly on the lookout for new markets, because his ultimate goal is to have a fully self-sufficient program.

Cormier argued that the program's annual loss is a relatively low price to pay for a program that employs and trains hundreds of inmates.

"If you were to actually pay for a program to employ 250 inmates it would be much more expensive," he said. "We feel that we provide a high quality product; we feel we are quite competitive pricewise; but we feel that the real benefit is the benefit that we're passing on through the inmate to the community.

"The more people that we can keep from coming back into the prison obviously saves taxpayer dollars, but also we try to create individuals that are law-abiding, taxpaying citizens that have a job and work in the community."

Being productive

Inmate Jesse Labrie is banking on that. He turns down some Enya blasting from a small stereo in his closed-up workshop where he spends his day engraving and making signs. He explains with a laugh the music helps him relax during his seven-hour daily shifts churning out signs and placards for the prison.

"Working here makes me feel like I'm actually doing something with my time, still living my life instead of just being a couch potato or just hiding in my cell ignoring the world," said Labrie, who is in year 13 of a lengthy sentence for multiple convictions of aggravated felonious sexual assault.

Despite the fact that the earliest he can obtain full parole is May 2036, Labrie said he's hoping the skills he's learning now will help him get a good job on the outside, one where his conviction won't count against him since the work is solitary, out of sight and would involve no contact with the public.

That said, his latest release date, which he could be inside to see, is more than 20 years away still. In that sense, it's likely good that Labrie said he sees the work as something that keeps him connected to the outside world; makes him feel like he's contributing; makes him feel normal.

"I miss that aspect," he said. "I want to still live. I don't want to just exist."

Convicted murderer Benjamin Duling likely won't get to put his skills to much use on the outside. Duling was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years to life. He is not eligible for parole until April 12, 2038.

But in the six months he's been working in the prison's woodshop, he's found an interest he never knew he had, and a solace.

"I thought it would be a good way to get out of my cell and occupy my mind," he said. "Doing the woodwork came a little natural so I took to it really quick."

Duling, who worked with computers on the outside, found himself reading up in his spare time on woodworking technique and making side projects - like a music stand - out of scrap wood when he wasn't working on assigned projects.

"This is mental health. It really is," said Duling. " .When I'm over here, this job kind of gets puts everything away out of my mind. It gets everything out and allows me to function at a normal level."

Jerry Teal, manager of the prison's Furniture Refinishing and Upholstery Services shop in Concord, said most of his workers, like those in the other shops, start out not knowing anything. He runs the shop as an apprentice program complete with masters and students. His three current masters have been in the shop long enough to have, well, mastered the upholstering knowledge passed down from 25 or 30 years of masters who've worked in the shop over the years.

Inmate David Burns said didn't know how to sew when he first started working in the Furniture and Upholstery shop at the prison six years ago. He used to run heavy equipment and do excavating in his old life. But after learning through other inmates, Burns is now a master.

Burns is serving 18 years to life for second-degree murder and is eligible for parole Nov. 26, 2020.

He said over the years he's learned that he enjoys the work and sheepishly admits he's really proud of what he produces. He said when he is out, he'd like to use the skills he's learned on the job, maybe even start his own shop.

"It's good for teaching patience and coping skills, and to use your mind," he said of the work he does in the shop. "Learning to cope. That's probably the most important thing. I've just become a completely different person. I mean teaching people - I've come a long way just with that on its own..

"I mean, being up here in the shop, it gives you a feeling like you're worth something."

Teal said inmates usually gravitate to these shops because the jobs tend to be better than others available at the prison. They can be more laid back and less stressful, he said. But at the same time, inmates who fail to learn the skills needed to do good work don't get to stay.

"They are proud of their work," Teal said. "And if they are not, they don't last long. .In this shop, they can say, 'I did that.' They can say, 'I came in here and I've never seen a sewing machine or in the wood shop, I've never seen a SkilSaw. And they can say, 'I've learned these things. Now I'm doing that and I did it. I think that's a sense of accomplishment that I think they enjoy."

More than enjoyment, he adds, it's a sense of accomplishment they need.

"I think most of the people that are in here are in here because of a lack of accomplishment in their lives," said Teal, "they have somehow failed sometime. They have not met society's norms. They're here.

"Now they have nothing else. They've lost everything, usually. They just want something to make it worthwhile getting up in the morning."


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