Building new skills and, maybe, a new life

Craft: A prison program teaches inmates to make furniture and gives them a trade they can use in the real world.

August 13, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Frank "Rusty" Hyatt, Spencer Hurst-Bey would love to make elegant desks and credenzas with rich cherry veneers and decorative millwork for the new House of Delegates office building in Annapolis.

But he's serving a life sentence for murder, so he didn't get to make his point when the issue of furnishing the building came before the Board of Public Works this week.

Hurst-Bey agrees with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer that inmate laborers could make fine furniture for the legislators' offices at an excellent price. In his view, though, that's only part of the reason the state should buy goods made by its prisoners.

"Once you can see a product - something you have created - I believe it gives you an opportunity to change yourself," Hurst-Bey said. "The same thing you can do with the wood, you can do with yourself."

At the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup yesterday, dozens of inmates in drab uniforms and safety goggles were running boards through giant saws and assembling desk drawers with pneumatic screwdrivers, all part of a prison labor program that goes well beyond making license plates.

About 180 inmates work in the prison's State Use Industries wood shop, and more are on a waiting list to get jobs there. Part of the reason, inmates and prison officials say, is that the jobs pay far better than most others in prison - an average of $180 a month - compared to $1 a day in entry-level positions elsewhere.

But most of the reason, they said, is that the wood shop gives them a trade they can use to build a new life if or when they get out of prison.

House of Correction Warden William L. Williams said State Use Industries jobs are a great stabilizing force within the prison. Inmates must avoid all rule infractions for 90 days before and during their employment in the jobs, so the people who work there tend to behave well.

"The more jobs we could create, it would be a lot better for us," Williams said.

And better for the state, said C. Jeff Beeson, executive director of the State Use Industries Management Council. Recidivism for inmates in the program is half that of the general prison population.

By midmorning yesterday, the wood shop was literally buzzing. In one room, men installed hardware in file cabinets and desks and made sure it operated smoothly.

In another room, workers carefully guided slabs of wood through saws, some of them giant computerized machines that make cuts to within a thousandth of an inch of precision.

The furniture will eventually go to state offices, hospitals and colleges. State Use Industries makes much of the furniture for University System of Maryland dorms, for example, and prisoners have made the shelves for the Baltimore County Public Library for the past 20 years.

Plant Manager Frank "Rusty" Hyatt said the skills inmates learn by running the machines can translate directly into jobs when they leave prison and not just in the furniture industry. Manufacturers of cars, mobile homes, plastics and plastic glass all use basically the same technology, he said.

One former inmate recently left and landed a job with a cabinet making company, earning more than $20 an hour, Hyatt said. "We have had successes like that where people have left and made something of themselves," he said.

That's what Granwell Chew had in mind when he heard about the wood shop. He said he was originally in prison at Hagerstown but requested a transfer to Jessup in hopes of getting a job making furniture. Chew is also serving a life sentence for murder, but the 39-year-old hopes to one day to get out on parole.

In the meantime, he said, he's able to send money home to help his family.

Hurst-Bey works in the prototype shop, where manager Hyatt is working to develop higher-end furniture. His newest line, the Canton Collection - so named because that's where Hyatt lives - runs to more than $1,200 for a standard U-shaped desk.

The furniture he has in mind for the House of Delegates is part of an unnamed line with solid cherry bases, fine veneers and elaborate millwork. Hyatt said he has toyed with naming it the "Congressional" but hopes that the "State House" might turn out to be more appropriate.

An order to a private company to supply House office furniture - which includes specially designed $2,000 desks for committee hearing rooms, $1,300 chairs and a $5,700 settee - is now on hold. At Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting, Ehrlich and Schaefer balked at the contract, suggesting the House was being too lavish with its plans.

They asked that State Use Industries go over the House's order and report back next week on what the inmates could produce in time for the building's scheduled opening in January.

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