The Maine State Prison Showroom, located on Route 1 in Thomaston, sells a range of wooden products, from small sail boats to large coffee tables, credenzas, cutting boards, bowls, key chains, ornaments, keepsake boxes, carved birds, chests, chairs and much more. It is a worthwhile drive out to a unique gift shop, and a nice way to support the state.by Linn Caroleo
Coastal Journal contributor
THOMASTON — The Maine State Prison Showroom, located on Route 1 in Thomaston, sells a range of wooden products, from small sail boats to large coffee tables, credenzas, cutting boards, bowls, key chains, ornaments, keepsake boxes, carved birds, chests, chairs – and, of course, wooden toaster tongs, an item they have trouble keeping on the shelves, and much more. It is a worthwhile drive out to a unique gift shop and a nice way to support the state.
The existence of a program where inmates in Maine make, repair or create useful commodities dates back to the Civil War.
“During Civil War times they had prisoners making carriages, sleighs, saddles, wagons and leather tack. More recently, at the turn of the Century, the inmates started making or repairing furniture. Then in the 1930s they added all the nautical objects that we sell today,” said Officer Timothy Kimball at the Maine State Prison Showroom in Thomaston.
Being allowed to make things out of wood while serving time in prison is considered a privilege, but is also tremendously popular among inmates.
“We currently have about 170 inmates making furniture and all the other items we sell here,” said Kimball. “Additionally, we have a whole bunch, who are on a waiting list, wanting to get into this program. They all have to be write-up free for several months before they can get in and they cannot get written up while they are here or they’ll get kicked out immediately.”
Every officer and prisoner has to complete a thorough safety program, said Kimball, so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to using the tools and operating the machines safely. Most of the time, it’s inmates teaching inmates how to make the items; occasionally they will offer classes.
Years ago, the program allowed each inmate to start a small woodworking business where they could make and sell five or six different set patterns of items made out of wood. Each prisoner was allowed to make $10,000 per year, but had to purchase their own supplies and set their own prices. Today, the Maine State Prison system provides all the wood, nails, glue, paint and varnish, while each participating inmate is paid an hourly wage, but does not get to sell each creation personally.
“We pay between $1.35 to $3 per hour in the existing program,” said Kimball. “Average salaries paid to prisoners in other work programs is only 35 to 50 cents per hour, so we pay pretty well. We pay them and then tell them what to make. It ends up being about the same result in terms of profit to each participant.”
Kimball said he believes being allowed to use their hands and having a constructive job to go to and participate in on a daily basis is very helpful to the inmates.
“They have to physically go to the woodworking shop every day for three hours in the morning and three more hours after lunch,” he said. “This gets them out of their prison mentality. And using their hands is very therapeutic for a lot of guys. I think it’s a really great program.”
New ideas come from a slew of sources: the prisoners themselves, the officers or even the public.
“We have a suggestion box here in the store and we’ll use ideas that customers give us to come up with new items we want to carry,” said Kimball. “Sometimes the prisoners will see something in a magazine or on TV and then write up a proposal. Or officers will bring in ideas, I’ve brought in several.”
Feeling that there were few items that might appeal to young females in the Thomaston Showroom, he proposed the creation of doll beds and highchairs.
“My wife was into ‘American Girl’ dolls, and I had already been making doll beds myself at home, so I brought the idea in and proposed that the inmates make doll beds for us to sell. I did the same thing with high chairs. I always feel like we have too few items that appeal to girls in here,” said Kimball.
Every year they unveil approximately 15 percent new and innovative items through proposals, suggestions or prototypes.
Leslie and David Bradbury of Harpswell have visited the showroom on several occasions and had this to say about the store: “We liked the showroom because the items were unique rather than mass produced. We purchased a serving tray made of wood with inserts of different colors and textures. The most impressive items were the handmade sailing ships. These nautical projects were complex and impressive in size. Selling these items is a good idea because both the prisoners and the public benefit from the project. It is a constructive and meaningful use of time.”
When visiting the Maine State Prison Showroom in Thomaston, which is the largest retailer of over 600 crafted products made by convicts, you will see prisoners working behind the counter while a prison guard is positioned nearby. There is a plethora of fantastic wood products, and the prices are very reasonable, while the workmanship is tremendous.
Ginger Ross of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire is a fan of the products she has been both given and purchased at the showroom in the past year.
“There’s something inspirational about the pieces made here,” Ross said. “How such beauty truly lies in the most unsuspecting people or really is present in all of us.”
Store hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days per week. For more information, call 354-9237, or visit www.maine.gov/corrections/industries/page7.html.