SHIRLEY — The woodworking shop is cavernous, like an airplane hangar, with a concrete floor, metal beams high overhead and thick triangular braces. During a recent tour, it was filled with fluorescent light and the aroma of fresh-cut wood.
It’s been in business for a decade and used to be a sewing shop, but the place looks new. An orderly line-up of tools hangs in a locked and windowed office where shop supervisor Ed Paddock can account for every portable item.
At the end of each work day, every item must be returned, he said, even if it’s broken.
About a dozen men work at their assigned tasks on a given day. Paddock said jobs rotate, and everybody who works here learns the full routine — cutting boards to size, operating machines and spray-painting finished furniture in a climate-controlled booth.
Prison Industries operates system-wide within the confines of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC). This furniture-making shop is in the Souza-Baranowski Correction Center, a state-of-the-art, maximum-security prison.
The workers are inmates. Only their first names can be used in this story.
Antonio is dark-haired and soft-spoken. Wanderlei is older, with a grizzled gray beard and ready smile. Both men said they feel fortunate to be working here. They’re proud of the jobs they do and the furniture they turn out, from made-to-order computer tables and handsome oak desks to sturdy Adirondak chairs that are painted red, white and blue.
On this day, Antonio was “scuffing” parts for a large piece of furniture that looks like a big bookcase with cubes for shelves.
Those are pigeonholes, said Industries Supervisor Kenneth Arsenault. The piece is slated for the State Police. Two computer tables, almost ready to go, are headed for other state offices.
“I love it,” Antonio said. “It’s good for rehabilitating the mind. Whoever wants to change can do so.”
Besides the skills he’s perfecting, he is gaining self-esteem, he said, and he and other inmates working in the Industries program take pride in their work.
Only inmates with exemplary behavior are eligible to work in the Industries program, said James Karr, director of the Central Industries office in Norfolk.
Products include a variety of items, from simple sheets to embroidered items to furniture, even eyeglasses.
Already supplied to state facilities and offered via catalogue, the items will soon be available for the public to buy at an on-site store. The building, renovated by inmates, is a small former Shaker house on prison grounds.
Working for “Industries,” as folks at the correction center call it, is a plum job. Inmates are paid $1 per hour, while most jobs pay only 50 cents a day. Prison rules state that half an inmate’s earnings go into an individual savings account. The rest can be sent home or spent as he chooses.
Wanderlei was working on a custom job — a hutch to top a desk destined for the DOC commissioner’s office.
Asked if this tall order is his alone to complete, he said if it’s not done at the end of one day, he’ll pick it up the next. Otherwise, he said he may “move on” to a different job.
Another operation is at MCI-Shirley, a medium- and minimum-security facility a short drive away on the state prison grounds. Hoops visitors pass through are less high tech than at the modern, maximum-security facility, which has dozens of surveillance cameras, a keyless electronic locking system and a sensitive body-scan device similar to those in airports.
A tour ends at a long, low building where MCI-Shirley’s medium-security shop hums more quietly but just as busily as its counterpart at Souza-Baranowski.
Workers make sheets, towels, face cloths, culinary caps, aprons and tube socks. Soon, the product list should include T-shirts and boxer shorts.
Dan Davis, the interim shop manager, has been with the DOC for 13 years.
Speaking about the clean, well-lit shop, he said this is good duty. He pointed out each phase of the process, from rolling out fabric to cutting and sewing.
Here, too, inmates learn every job, but some have added responsibility. Willie, for example, knows every phase, from cutting and sewing to packing and shipping. He also repairs machines and helps train others.
Bob works as a clerk in the workshop office where he set up spreadsheets and a product database that Davis said helps him keep the program’s profit-and-loss balance straight.
Diane Wiffin, who arranged the tour, stressed that this computer, like all computers inmates use in the Industries program, is a single-purpose workstation with no Internet access.
“That’s important for the public to know,” she said.
The best part of working for Industries is that even those who’ve been in prison a long time, as Bob has, can accomplish good things.
For younger inmates, he said it helps establish a work ethic some never had before. Getting up, getting to work, being responsible.
Customers that buy the sheets, towels and tube socks include the DOC, Old Soldiers Home, Veterans Homes, the Department of Youth Services and county prisons. This shipment, tallied on a nearby board, consists of 1,098 dozen sheets, 679 dozen socks and 1,248 dozen towels.
Karr said “high-end” merchandise, such as the embroidered items made at the women’s prison in Framingham and clothes, are also part of Industries’ inventory. They include chambray shirts, jeans, even eyeglasses crafted at the state prison in Gardner. The Industries program, including inmate training, is a nonprofit that pays for itself through sales.
Industries items can be ordered by catalogue. Furniture, linens and clothes will be sold at the on-site store in Shirley. The officials said they anticipate a grand opening sometime after Thanksgiving.