August 22, 2017

These Americans work for just $1.30 to $3 per hour. Quite gladly.

 

By John Guy LaPlante

Thomaston, Maine – I recently stopped by the State of Maine Prison Store here . My third time in 50 years! As in the past, I was just a tourist passing

through and the store is so wonderful. But this time my visit developed  a bad twist, sad to tell you.

It's raining but still customers come. Especially in tourist season. I never heard of another store like this.

It’s raining but still the customers come. Especially in the important  tourist season. I never heard of another store like this.

A prison store? Yes. it sells  things made by prisoners. The boss is a prison official but the clerks are trusties–prisoners    trusted not to tescape. The profits get plowed right back in.

I stopped for the best of reasons. I had such happy memories of the first time way back in 1963, I believe it was. Now I just wanted to check what might be new. There’s no other  store like it, to my knowledge. It is such a great concept and it sells such good stuff, and at bargain prices.

Well, the store looks the same. It’s right on U.S. 1—a perfect spot to attract tourists. U.S. 1 is the main street of this small seacoast town.

The store is in a big, old red brick building. It has big front windows it which it displays  some of its items. The store is about 50 by 100 feet. It’s jammed with items for sale.  Nearly everything is made of wood, good native wood. Everything is made by prisoners.

Prices start at around $3 and run up into the hundreds of dollars with a few in the thousands. Maine souvenirs, toys, and decorative items. Practical things for the home. Fine furniture. Some true art items that will s go up and up  in value., for sure Yes, some souvenir items are mass-produced, I’m sure. But some are one of a kind!

And everything is made by prisoners who, it seems to me, are delighted to use their talents creatively, develop new skills, and make money. That’s better than watching TV, counting every minute till they get out, or going stir-crazy, which happens.

On my first visit years ago, the prison itself was nearby, in the back behind the store somewhere. Now it’s shifted to the next town south, Warren. It has about 900 prisoners. But Maine has eight prisons, so some of these items can be coming in from several or all of them. I have no idea how many prisoners make stuff. It must be just a small number.

From what I’ve seen, no item is autographed, though some certainly should be.  Some of these prisoners are true artisans, talented and dedicated.  In fact, artists. You can tell just by looking.

It’s was a gray,  rainy day this last time. For four days, rain! Still there were close to a dozen men and women shopping inside.  In high season the store is mobbed, I’m sure.

As in the past, there was a manager and half a dozen clerks at work. All men of middle age and up. No prisoner wore a  black-and-white striped uniform, the kind we see in old movies. Just ordinary work clothes. All were men who had served a good portion of their sentence and were deemed safe . Whether there was a  murderer or rapist or arsonist here , I don’t know. Probably for a lesser crime.I’m sure they all knew that we knew they were prisoners. But they didn’t show it. They seemed ordinary men working ordinary jobs.

If you took down  the Maine Prison Store sign down out front, you would consider this just another  business selling  nice wood products.

Let me tell you about my first visit here 49 years ago or so. It sticks in my mind as a precious memory. We were on a camping vacation up here—Pauline and I and are three little kids at that time.  We didn’t know about the store. We stumbled on it. Went in for a look.

it was surprising to see all the stuff was made of wood. Lots and lots of small items, and big ones too. So interesting. The fact that everybody involved except the manager was so extraordinary. Pauline and I were amazed by the furniture. Its quality. The low prices.

We ooh-ed and ah-ed over this  piece and that one. On the spot we bought a whole roomful for our two older kids. A double bunk and the ladder for it, Plus a big chest of drawers, plus a smaller chest, plus a lamp table. All made of rock maple. Sturdy stuff for years and years. Painted glossy black with gold trim. We were so happy.We had just finished building our house and were about to move in from our apartment. This would be perfect.

The price?  Not sure. About $250, I think.   That was a lot. We were a young couple. Loaded with bills from the construction. But a terrific bargain.

We were here in our station wagon.  How to get all this home? Our trusty arranged to have it shipped. About $50, I think.

I still remember him. Patient. About 40. Well-spoken. Smart. He could have been a  a  salesman in any furniture store. No way could I imagine him as a convicted criminal.Whatever  he had done, we hoped he’d be  paroled soon and go on to a good  life.

That’s one of the things about the store that impressed .  These trusties were working at meaningful jobs, good jobs. They were getting a good start for a new life outside sooner or later.  Well, that was the idea.

Our children grew up.  When the older two became teens, we took the two bunks apart and set them up side by side as twin beds. The children used them till thy left the nest.

They’re all well settled and doing fine. Our oldest, Arthur, is a lawyer in Florida. He and Marita have had three  children. Well, that roomful of furniture wound up in their home for their kids.  And it’s still there, unused most of the time now because the cycle is repeating itself.

I returned to the store some 15 years ago. Alone. Didn’t need anything but had fun looking at everything. Bought a hat rack that looks like the head of a moose, with antlers. naturally.Just for its sentimental value.

And here I was again. It felt so good to see the store continuing on its steady course. I asked for the manager. He was at the central desk. Three or four other men were working there. Trusties. Nothing I could see about him tipped me off that he was the boss. No uniform. No gun on his belt, or handcuffs, or club. Didn’t even see a badge.

I told him a bit about myself, said I wrote newspaper feature stories, gave him my  card. Said I’d like to do a story about the store and could I take photos?  I had noticed a sign saying “No Photos!”

“Sorry, I can’t authorize that,” he said brusquely, putting aside my card.

“It will be a good story. Very positive.  Will make the store and the prison system and the state of Maine look good. It will be good for the prisoners, too.”

“Sorry, sir. I can’t do that.”

I was aghast. I thought he’d welcome me with open arms and give me his complete cooperation.

“Please call someone who can authorize it,” I said.

Reluctantly he picked up the phone and made a call. But turned off the phone after just two or three rings.  “He’s not there,” he told me.

“Well, please try the next person up.” He glowered but made the call. Same thing. “Sorry.”

I was irritated. “Please call the Governor!” I told him. I said it half joking.  I was sure that a prison official  higher up would see the good publicity this would be and would say okay.

I noticed the trusties smiling. Looking at one another knowingly. Winking. They were enjoying this.

“Call the Governor?” the manager said, his eyes killing  me. “No way!” And went about his work.

I dropped the matter. Took a quick look around. I had my camera on my chest but didn’t use it. Could have sneaked some pictures. Didn’t want to open a hornets’ nest. And headed for the door.

So, sorry, folks! You would have enjoyed seeing some of the store’s offerings.

On the way out, I spotted a small sign. It gave me valuable info. Prisoners making items for the store got paid from $1.35 to $3 an hour, depending on their skill. The state supplied everything.  The prisoners could use the money to make purchases at the prison canteen. Or help support their families. Or make court-ordered  restitutions. Or pay child support. And so on. All very nice.

Hey,  the $3 per hour the top ones earns sounds like very little. I know that. But that’s $120 for 40 hours, if they’re allowed to work that long. I doubt they earn enough to pay income tax. Earning that all while receiving full room and board and laundry and recreational opportunities and medical care and other benefits. Not so bad, everything considered. That’s a lot better than doing nothing, which is how time gets spent in many prisons.

Oh, I could have pursued my request. If I were a young reporter again, I would have. But all that is behind me. I have other good stories to write.

On the highway in my van, I had another thought. Hey, all those trusties back there were men. How come no women?  There must be female prisoners. Maybe the State of Maine feels having also woman trusties in the store would be problematic.Well, the world is changing. Hey, the Navy is putting young women on subs right alongside young men–for cruises under water that last six months or more! That’s really problematic, in my opinion. If I were young again, I’d look into the no-woman-trusties angle. too.

Anyway, if you’re on vacation near the Maine Prison Store, do stop by. It’s right on Route 1. You’ll be treated nicely. You’ll love the stuff.  The prices, too. I’ll bet you’d buy something. You’d be helping the prisoners.

Tell the manager I sent you. Tell him I wrote a story anyway. Thank you.

Oh, the last time I was at Arthur and Marita’s, I slept on one of those  bunk beds. As solid as ever. I nodded off thinking about this years ago.

end

Comments

  1. Ann Meads says:

    Great story. We lived in Rockland for years and loved the area even though the prison was in the next town we never saw any problems but knew the store was there and never went in.
    ANN

    • Ah, Rockland!
      From Rockland is just a stone’s throw not only to Thomaston but also to Rockport where is a much more interesting place than just a store.
      Rockport houses the most useful medicinal plant gardens of Avena Botanicals (website: avenabotanicals.com) which are extremely inspirational and their owner, Deb Soule, is one of the most influential gardeners in this region of America.
      Have you been there, Ann?

  2. Joan Perrone says:

    Hi John,
    Reading your last post before we head out…leaving on Tuesday.
    I think that there is a similar type of store not too far from Ogonquit, but I’m not positive. It is good that they are using their time constructively. Maybe it will give them a head-start to change their lives and live a different lifestyle when they get out. Too bad no photos…I wonder if it’s because people might copy their things (but they can buy them and copy them from what they have bought) or are they hesitant to have photos taken of the inmates? Hmmmmm!!!!!

    Enjoy the remainder of the good weather. Scenery is starting to look colorful..so pretty.

    Take care.

    Joan and Frank

  3. jim davis says:

    good memories.

  4. Lucie Fradet says:

    We were excited about the furniture, too. It looked great in your new home. The story brings nice memories to my mind. Thanks!

  5. Nancy Simonds says:

    I’ve been to Rockland and Rockport and love both towns. Think I’ll go back and visit Thomaston, though. Perhaps I could steal a little something and they’d put me in their prison. Watch for further reports!!!! Hey, it’s free room and board, too – along with lots of men. One never knows!!!

  6. Another amusing and poignant vignette from the John Dos Passos of Deep River. Fine job. I am sure that the trusties got plenty of enjoyment from your pointed questions.

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