Hidden Costs

When Prison Labor Gets Upsold as Artisanal Kitsch

Maine State Prison Showroom Facebook page

The Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC) Industries woodshop at the Maine State Prison is approximately the size of a football field and smells of split wood, chemicals, and burning. Men wear clear goggles and work on cupboards, checkerboards, corner hutches, model boats, salt-and-pepper shakers, jewelry boxes, decorative ball-and-chains, birdhouses.

Approximately 120 men, out of the over 900 incarcerated here, make over 650 items to be sold at The Maine State Prison Showroom, a gift shop popular with tourists. Items are also sold at a few other licensed retailers throughout the state. Men at the woodshop are paid anywhere from one to three dollars per hour, higher than the 40-60 cents earned by kitchen or janitorial staff. From this salary, men pay for daily necessities—the infirmary, for instance, charges a starting fee of five dollars for new medical issues, and basic commissary items tend to cost five times the retail price.

When I visited the gift shop, I remember seeing a stack of small mirrors with gray jail bars obscuring each reflective surface. A plaque at the bottom of the frame read: “Think, or this could be you!” The mirrors are built by hand, but the labor is partitioned through an assembly line: someone cuts the square frame, someone sands or paints the wooden bars gray, someone else glues a tiny mirror. I’m told by staff who work for Maine’s Prison Industries that production is determined by what customers purchase or request.

Those on the outside—even without a connection to the inside—are aware on some level that mandatory labor has long been part of the prison sentence. Season three of Orange is the New Black features incarcerated women sewing panties for a lingerie company called Whispers, a thinly-veiled stand-in for Victoria’s Secret, at 45 cents an hour. This isn’t fiction and this practice isn’t an anomaly. There are 37 states which have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations. Microsoft, Starbucks, Nike, Revlon, and Boeing, to name a few, have all used prison labor; however, municipal and state governments have the longest history of making work for prisoners compulsory, or hiring them for extremely low wages. The Newgate Prison, built in New York City in 1797, paid off most of its expenses during the first five years by forcing its inmates to work.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, kept slavery legal for the punishment of a crime. From the end of the Civil War until the early part of the 20th century, prison labor was mostly unregulated and prisoners were leased to work in factories or in fields, replacing the abolished system of plantation slavery with a legal form of prison-farm slavery. Labor unions pushed to pass legislation to curtail some of these carceral-slavery practices in the 1880s, but penitentiaries used semantics to dodge new barriers. The labor programs remained the same but were reclassified as “industrial training schools.” These programs were sold to the public as socialization programs: work as therapy.

The Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC) Industries woodshop at the Maine State Prison is not alone in rebranding carceral slavery as ameliorative. Across the state of California, incarcerated people fight fires for two dollars a day. In Boston, they clear snow off train tracks at 20 cents per hour, where union workers would be paid a negotiated $30 to work the long, grueling hours in below-freezing temperatures. This practice is particularly prevalent in private prisons, where corporate stockholders—who make money off of prisoners’ work—have lobbied for longer sentences, where prisoners can receive as little as 17 cents per hour for factory labor and facilities aren’t subject to the same rules of disclosure as a federal institution or publicly held company. We are likely accustomed to hearing about prison labor as a means for corporate financial gain or as a system that forces prisoners to pay for their own confinement. But what happens when the work is disguised as creative catharsis, the method by which the incarcerated will be rehabilitated, the key to recovery?

The MDOC has one of the longest-running woodshops within a prison, operated almost entirely by the incarcerated. According to the MDOC’s website, their goal is “to provide quality products to the public and other agencies while, very importantly, keeping as many prisoners as busy as possible.” Browsing products on the internet, I mostly find kitchen tools and Adirondack chairs, but there are also paintings and other objects that exceed classification. A wooden sculpture sits in the front window of the The Showroom: a life-size Poseidon sits on a motorcycle, holding a trident in his right hand and gripping the handlebars with his left, while a mermaid with long, loose hair sits side-saddle on the shiny, lacquered bike behind him.

When I arrive at the woodshop to interview the men who work there, most show me a personal project—although they can’t keep them in their cells or give them to anyone on the outside. At the end of the work day, they receive 10-15 minutes to work on a project of their own choosing, and this is how Poseidon, over many years, was carved. I’m reminded of things that have been built by hundreds: minarets, bridges, pyramids, stadiums.In the zone is how it’s frequently described when I ask the men how they approach their work.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Joe* is a white man from a place not far from MDOC. He shows me his side project: a finely-polished box with a hidden compartment. On top he’s laid out an unfinished geometric design with dark and light stains of wood. Another man shows me his bear paw candy dish. “If you want candy, you have to take it from him,” he tells me. He makes a growling sound when I touch its smooth claws.

“You end up here, and even though you mature and grow, even though you change radically and the world changes with you, what you are and what you’re called always stays the same,” Joe tells me. Joe’s been incarcerated for the past six years, and he has ten to go until he’s released. “I could cure cancer tomorrow, but even after I’ve served my time and paid my price, the headline would still read: Convict Cures Cancer.” We’re talk-shouting over the sounds of saws and belt sanders. I ask questions about his work with the MDOC Industries, and he talks about prison reform, art, and Tori Amos.

We’re huddled over pieces of a model boat he’s building. In the past Joe has worked in flooring, as an automotive mechanic, in business management. “Look at this picture,” he says. It’s the same unfinished boat he has in his hands. “I can look at this and just build it. My mind works like that.” Joe’s dad printed and mailed him images of boats from the internet. “In here, I can think about things,” he says, “but I can’t research them. They rarely let us use computers.” A recent survey of more than 2,000 federal inmates by Families Against Mandatory Minimums found that very few prisoners have access to computers. Moreover, job skills programs are typically only available to inmates who are nearing release, and many continuing education classes are led by fellow prisoners. Joe tells me that he was recently certified to lead such a class.

Joe works as he talks, tying tiny masts to tiny sails without looking. Their first shift is from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., then there’s a count, lunch, another count, another shift. Before I walk away, Joe finds a question for me, from a person on the inside to a person representative of the outside. This is the only moment that we’ve been able to speak without prison staff standing near, listening. His voice drops and we get five minutes. “What do you expect from us?” he says.

The shop is huge, the size of a football field. Everyone is busy. This is not the craftsman’s workshop that the MDOC’s website hopes you sentimentally imagine; it’s a factory. Joe gestures toward everyone at their respective stations: carving, cutting, applying fresh layers of paint to lobster keychains. He speaks quickly again after asking the question, as if he doesn’t expect an answer: “There has to be a way that they can belong again.”

“We’re a program and we’re a business,” Ken Lindsey, the Prison Industries Manager for the Maine State Prison, explained during my visit. “We’re a business because we sell our products. We’re a program because we bring in as many inmates as we can. Some of [the prisoners] may have more difficulty making products than the other guys, but we want to give everyone the opportunity.” He tells me that the prison’s woodshop is self-funded, with no outside grants or assistance; The lumber is harvested by prisoners at the Charleston Correctional Facility and shipped to prisoners who are “selected” for work in Warren. According to Lindsey, this is how prisoners will be rehabilitated.

The message is not particularly new. For centuries prisons have operated under similar convictions: Laws have accumulated to create a thinly-veiled system of slavery, and their implementation changes shape according to contemporary acceptability. Where prisoners once broke rocks, they now provide goods and services that the outside population might deem useful. The rhetoric, meanwhile, increasingly frames such sanctioned work as salubrious for anyone who might dare to question it. In the liberal consciousness, it seems, prison labor is more palatable when couched in the lexicon of efficiency or creative expression.

Maine runs on tourists. In the basement of The Showroom, which is approximately 11 miles from the prison in Warren, I’m surrounded by rows of shelved inventory: toy boats with a gleam, a gumball machine shaped like a shocked clown, boxes of lobster trap keychains painted neon pink. The state’s motto, “Vacationland,” is written on picture frames. “The earnestness of the work shines through and the prices can’t be beat,” Travel + Leisure magazine wrote about The Showroom in a January 2015 guide to vacationing in Maine. On what the vacationer should purchase, they decide that the ultimate souvenir is a T-shirt that reads: Stolen from the Maine State Prison.

On Yelp, a customer from The Showroom named Alison rates the place five out of five stars. Other customers seem to agree: the prices are great. Vacationers want to find prices lower than anywhere else; they want a bargain that’s also a little taste of Maine. And it’s a program, they’re told, that “wants to put people back to work.” Americans want to vacation, but most of all they want to pretend to consume benevolently.

Although I was told that the day-to-day work for MDOC Industries is determined by The Showroom’s needs, almost every prisoner I visit in the woodshop during April and November 2016 worked on a project commissioned by the state, city, county, or a private business or individual. One customer sent in photographs of their boat to have the prisoners make models; they would be given away as gifts. A stack of large signs to be hung in a public park were being sanded and finished. Buoy-shaped trophies were drying after being primed. In a few weeks, they would be bestowed upon winners at a race. Maine Governor Paul LePage’s desk was being turned over for its second re-finishing. In the bottom of its drawer, all of the governors before him had left their signatures in pen and Sharpie.

On a few occasions I was told that The Showroom brings in around one million annually—a common figure often quoted in local papers—but that isn’t accurate. For the fiscal year of 2015, The Showroom generated $2,015,178, which is $24,569 more than 2014 profits, which were $78,345 more than 2013 profits. Many of the salaries for staff working within MDOC Industries come directly from The Showroom’s profits. And yet, because of low wages and the nature of the work, the prison often sees reductions to its official staff, which means there are many days and weeks when the shop is closed or significantly fewer prisoners are put to work.

Across the hall from the din of the woodshop, Dave* runs a much quieter upholstery shop. He pulls out rolls of fabric to show me the different patterns and textures. It’s tidy and ordered in here. Dave tells me that he’s upholstered chairs for Oprah Winfrey and recently had to re-do Snoop Dogg’s furniture after one of his parties. It smelled bad and was stained, he tells me, and another man, still working, laughs. Dave shows me a small photo album of his upholstery. Most of his work—like Snoop Dogg’s furniture—is done for Weatherend Estate Furniture, a Maine-based outdoor furniture supplier. But he’s most happy with the upholstery jobs he’s done for individuals who send in antique furniture. He shows me chairs and chaises longues from the 1800’s which he re-upholstered in burgundy brocade—many are for the Governor LePage’s wife.

The prison’s paternalistic organization of servitude ensures that those who make the most money for the prison, and do so with alacrity, like Dave, are accorded the most respect and privileges. On Sunday, a non-work day for most, Dave comes to the shop to work alone. “I like it in here,” he says. “I don’t have to deal with the noise and dust of the woodshop.”

In 1929 the Hawes-Cooper Act was introduced to give regulatory power to the state after manufacturers in the open market called for a change to the system of prison labor, not because of the unethical treatment of prisoners, but because private industry simply couldn’t compete with prison prices. This act mandated that prison-made products become subject to the laws of the state to which they were shipped. Only six years later, it was decided that this wasn’t quite enough to protect private economic interests, and Congress passed the Ashurst-Sumners Act, which prohibited the transportation of prison goods to any state whose laws forbade it. This act was later amended in 1940 to exclude almost all prison-made goods from interstate commerce, which essentially meant that any item made by prisoners could not be sold across state lines for a commercial profit. But in 1979, Congress passed the Percy Amendment, which allows states to sell prison-made goods across state lines as long as they comply with a few rules—namely, preventing prison-based manufacturers from undercutting existing wage structures. This allows prison labor to expand—through a slightly circuitous route—to private-sector employment.

The MDOC upholstery shop, and their contract with Weatherend Furniture, is legal because it is part of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which allows prisoners in its program to work for the private sector. Dave wants to get rid of the interstate commerce clause altogether. He spends some time imagining how much money would be made if they could sell across state lines, without having to work with a private company. But his nominal wage likely wouldn’t change.

In April, Martin* tells me that he has been in prison for over 20 years; he’s worked almost as long in the woodshop. He shows me a side table, inlaid with a chessboard. He picks up a scrap of sandpaper and works it furiously. “You see that?” he says, and points to one of the small squares. “Rub your hand over it.” I do and feel the slight indiscretion between one wood and another, between the dark and light—one kicks up, almost imperceptibly; I can’t see it, only feel it. “That’s my mistake,” he says.

Martin learned how to make the table in a woodshop course he takes on Sunday from Brian Reid, a fine furniture maker and volunteer teacher in the prison since 2011. Around 10 to 15 incarcerated men are enrolled in Reid’s class, which goes into more advanced techniques than assembly line skills. They learn craftsmanship. Reid told me in an interview that he has tried several times to expand the program but hasn’t been allowed. The prisoners call this course “college,” although they do not receive any form of academic credit. It is usually these men who slowly teach some of these new techniques to others in the main woodshop.

Maine has sold its program to tourists as a form of arts-and-crafts nostalgia: Where cottage industries for handmade items have shrunk or evaporated, the story goes, these men work together to produce interesting objects. But the state’s labor program is no different from any other; its artisanal veneer may even make it more insidious. The majority of men are fulfilling monotonous duties. They aren’t learning marketable skills.

At the MDOC, the chosen method of rehabilitation is conveniently braided with punishment. Moreover, such punishment provides direct material benefit to the MDOC, those who are responsible for these men’s captivity in the first place. And yet we on the outside are told to think it is good to feel purpose—and that a task, however extractive, is one kind of purpose. So we give cover to this lie, purchasing wooden bowls and re-upholstering chairs at bargain prices.