View Full Version : Creative industries thrive at NH State Prison

12-16-2004, 10:07 PM
Creative industries thrive at NH State Prison
Union Leader Staff

CONCORD - Michael Sawyer added color to a handful of birdhouse ornaments he made to hang on Christmas trees.

Donald Briere, meanwhile, worked to finish a wooden chess table to go with the game pieces he carved.

The scene didn't quite resemble Santa's workshop, and their handmade items would not be sold in any store resembling your neighborhood Wal-Mart.

The woodworkers had plenty of time on their hands. Both have years left on their sentences at the maximum security New Hampshire State Prison. What their hobby-craft handiwork produced ended up in the hands of families or friends, or for sale in a spartan shop just up the road.

Briere explained that time spent making items for sale, family or charity helps pass the day-to-day monotony.

"Gets me out of the house," said Inmate Number 20689.

Prison shop

In a former milk house along North State Street, Gene and Gayle Seip walked the aisles at the "Corrections Creations" gift shop and store, open year-round at 312 North State.

The Hill couple visit so often that when they bought a jewelry box the previous day, "We could tell who made it just by looking at it," she said, rattling off the inmate's name.

"We're building a new house and I have my eyes on that buffet over there," Mrs. Seip said, gesturing toward the cherry sideboard going for $900.

"Quality," her husband said. "You can't beat the prices."

The pair left with a $149 tiger maple table, a $49 covered cherry basket and a $16 cherry Shaker box.

The building looked more garage sale than retail store. Wooden bowls were displayed on top of cherry tables.

While some inmates worked with wood, others called on paint. A 16-by-20 framed oil painting of a boy hunting with his dog was priced at $95.

A baby set with a sleeper, bib, booties and a purple bag to put it all in sold as a package for $10, the handiwork of a resident of the women's prison in Goffstown. Items also come from the Berlin prison.

Wooden rock horses sold for $60 and an oak cribbage board for $20. Leather backpacks went for $99 while a two-piece cherry hutch was priced at $2,300.

The store isn't without its sale items. A painting of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car with a tribute to his late dad was marked half off the $65 original price.

People admired the store for its quality and uniqueness.

"We're busy around the holidays," store manager Debora Nye said.

The store rings up more than $500,000 in annual sales. It takes a 10 percent commission on every item and the rest goes into a prisoner's account. The inmate must pay for the cost of materials.

But the benefits extend beyond mere money.

Time well spent

About 100 inmates work in the hobby-craft area.

"It's a good incentive for inmates to stay out of trouble," said John Limoge, the hobby-craft foreman.

Step out of line and you lose your privileges. And getting back in won't be easy because there's a waiting list.

Tools and infrastructure costs are paid from the inmate recreation fund, made up primarily of rebates from toll calls inmates make. The state covers the heat and electricity, according to Dennis Race, administrator of industries.

The prison offers an industries area where 300 inmates receive training and are paid up to $3.50 per day to make anything from license plates to wooden cabinets, he said.

Inmates work three- or four-hour shifts. The program is self-sufficient, selling items to state agencies, municipalities and libraries. Profits from the industries program go into the state's general fund, which in some years has reaped $250,000.

Inmates can use the money they earn to pay restitution, buy items from the prison canteen or send money to their families. The prison houses about 1,350 inmates.

Race said that, nationwide, statistics show that two-thirds of prisoners wind up back in prison within three years. For those in an industries program, the return rate is only about 11 percent.

Results of a study that the National Institute of Justice is doing should be released in mid-2005, according to Carol Martindale-Taylor, an information specialist at the National Correctional Industries Association in Baltimore.

"You talk to any of them out there and they'll tell you it does help prevent more tickets, write-ups and bad behavior in that prison," she said. "You have to keep them busy doing something constructive."


For many inmates, the prison work provides them with a skill they can use when they are released.

"It gives them something for on the way out," Martindale-Taylor said. Some also learn about how to conduct themselves in a working environment, although one with strict security, she said.

Joe Weedon, director of government affairs for the American Correctional Association in Lanham, Md., said it reduces idleness.

"Offenders are creative individuals and they find ways to keep their minds or themselves busy in ways that may not be good, from a security or safety aspect, for the institution," Weedon said. "Giving an inmate something to do leads to a safer and more secure environment."

In Concord last week, inmates in the industries section worked on cabinets for the Lebanon Housing Authority for buildings undergoing renovation.

"We're usually a third to half the cost of upscale furniture stores," said Mike Boudreau, the woodshop manager in the industries section.

"This is stuff that gets passed from generation to generation," he said. "It doesn't get thrown away in 10 years."

Briere's chess table complete with a built-in board, drop leaves and carved pieces sells for between $1,100 and $1,500. The Merrimack man might net around $700 or $800. The store, he said, already sold five similar tables.

"Usually," he said, "we christen the board. Somebody challenges me to a game and we play a game."

Briere, 43, figured he made at least $6,000 one year and can use his woodworking skills as a hobby after he gets out. That could be another dozen years, he said, depending on how his appeal goes.

"This here is something I can do as a retirement plan," he said.

The Corrections Creations store at 312 N. State St., is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday and closed Monday.