▶ Watch Video: Art by the incarcerated

Along Route 1, in Thomaston, Maine, is a store filled with crafts – birdhouses and dollhouses, salad bowls and sailing ships – all made in Maine state prisons.

Ted and Barbara Widmayer have been shopping here for decades. “We found the quality to be excellent,” said Ted.

“It’s very nice that somebody who is perhaps in a place that he or she wishes she weren’t, still has the spirit to make something nice like that,” Barbara added.

Pieces created by inmates on display at the Maine State Prison Showroom. 

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Prison inmates have been making things in Maine since the 1800s, when selling sleighs and wagons helped defray costs. Today, a whole range of crafts supports the workshops in Maine’s maximum security prison in Warren.

Inmate Ron Boobar said, “I mean, I can’t control everything that happens in prison. Nobody can. But when I’m sitting at that computer designing something that’s gonna be lasered, I’m not in prison. I’m not there. I am focused on this, that’s gonna bring somebody pleasure.”

Boobar was 24 when he began serving his time; that was 33 years ago. “When I came to prison, there wasn’t computers,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to turn them on. So, I taught myself how to do this stuff.”

Ron Boobar operates a laser to carve artwork at the state prison in Warren, Me. 

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Correspondent Nancy Giles asked, “How did you learn that?”

“It’s a lot of trial-and-error,” he replied.

Charlie Jones came here when he was 20, sentenced to 75 years in a state where there is no parole. In the workshops, he discovered he had a talent for carving: “Every time that I carved something I thought, ‘Man, how the hell am I gonna do this?’ But as you take one piece off and you start to see more, then you just kinda go.”

One of Jones’ earlier projects was a golden eagle, which he learned to carve from a book. “I just kind of went by that and tried to just duplicate it,” he said.

“You just kind of went by that?” asked Giles.

“Yeah, I have [an] ability to endure monotony. Carving the feathers was kind of therapeutic. I could just do it. And once you get a rhythm going, it’s alright.”

An eagle carved by inmate Charlie Jones. 

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“It’s amazing the amount of talent that the residents have here,” said Randall Liberty, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Corrections. “We have more than 100 residents working here daily. They do about $1.6 million worth of work out of this facility.”

Giles asked, “For people who might think, ‘Lock the door and throw away the key – why are they getting an opportunity to get training, to be educated?’ What would you say to them?”

“Whatever side of the political spectrum you may be on, there’s a win here for everyone,” Liberty replied. “If you spend $46,000 a year to house someone in a correctional facility, and they come back because they receive no programming to address the core reasons why they arrived here, it’s stupid money.”

One of Maine’s programs allows residents to earn a college degree. The money for it was donated by Doris Buffett [Warren’s sister], who lived in Rockland, Maine. “She gave us an initial $2 million donation,” said Liberty. “And that’s the best money I’ve ever seen invested in anyone.”

Ron Boobar are both graduates. “The college program is noticeably magnificent,” Jones laughed. “When we used to walk to chow, you could hear people talking in the back about some MS-13 story they heard, or the people in front of you talking about how they used to cook meth. But now when I go to chow, you might hear one of those conversations in front of you, but behind you, you’ll hear somebody talking about their philosophy class or their history class.”

Liberty said, “The individuals that graduate have about a 5% return rate, recidivism rate, as opposed to a 60-65% nationally.”

“That means 95% of the people who go through this program don’t go back?” asked Giles.

“That’s correct.”

When Doris Buffett died in 2020, Charlie Jones was asked if he could make something to honor her. He made a table, with legs made of books; on their spines, the names of courses open to prison residents, and the professors who teach them. On the table, a book telling Doris Buffett’s story, and a thank-you note.

Details of a table carved by inmate Charlie Jones. 

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Jones said, “There’s only so many opportunities that you have in here to kind of, like, touch the world.”

This fall, in Portland, Maine, there was an exhibition of art by those serving time in Maine prisons, part of a year-long project to shine a light on parts of prison life not often seen.

“It’s all from the heart; that’s what I like about this,” said curator Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “Sometimes it’s an expression of longing, more than anything. We have people who have used paper bags because that’s the only thing they had to work with.”

Inmates at Maine’s state prisons, many of whom are facing decades behind bars without a chance of parole, are finding new purpose through creative expression. An exhibition of works by the incarcerated was recently held in Portland, Maine. 

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Co-curator Olivia Hochstadt graduated from Colby College with a degree in art history last year. She told Giles she’d never been in a prison before.

“What was your perception before you went in?” Giles asked.

“Just sort of images of, like, sweaty guys who work out, maybe not friendly,” she said. “And that just has not been true. Well, maybe they work out! What surprised me the most was how kind the people I met were – respectful, courteous. You know, I really believe that some of those guys are nicer than men that I’ve met outside.”

One of the pieces on exhibit was a web of crochet work: “And as we were working with the artist on this, he said, ‘You know, what I really want is to write tags on each of the pieces, like price tags, but not price tags, because I want to write the intent behind the art,” Hochstadt said.

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Collins said, “We want people to know that every person in here has a family on the outside that cares about them. You know, ‘My brother’s coming to see the show,’ ‘My daughter’s gonna be here.’ And, you know, ‘We want them to see something they can be really proud of.'”

Giles asked, “What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about people that are in prison?”

“I think that they’re throwaways,” Liberty replied. “We have to ask ourselves, you know, do we believe in redemption? And I think that we all believe in redemption when it applies to us. When it replies to other people, we’re reluctant to do that.”

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For Charlie Jones, the existential questions are deep and persistent.

“I’m in here for murder; I got 75 years,” he said. “I’ve been in prison longer than I was alive when I committed my crime. If I say to myself, ‘I want to fulfill the purpose of what the people who put me here intended for this to be,’ what am I supposed to be doing? When, if anything, would that purpose be fulfilled?

“And for the people that you hurt, what has to be done for them, for those people to say, ‘Okay, I now see that that wasn’t a monster, that that was a stupid kid’?”

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Story produced by Mary Lou Teel. Editor: George Pozderec.