These amazing handmade crafts were all designed and built by prisoners seeking new skills.

My wife and I received a cutting board as a wedding gift.

Our friends went off the registry for this particular piece of craftsmanship. Not because we needed another cutting board (we don't) and not because it was a beautifully finished handmade gift (it is).

They bought it because it came from prison.


Photo by Thom Dunn/Welcometoterranova.

For more than 80 years, the Maine State Prison Showroom has sold handcrafted wooden gifts made by inmates.

Year after year, Mainers and vacationers alike flock to Thomaston, Maine, (or the outlet shop in Windham) to check out the latest in affordable, handmade homegoods — everything from jewelry boxes and chairs to toy trucks and model ships.

And it's all created, designed, and built by inmates at the Maine State Prison.

It's a remarkable correctional program with positive benefits for the public and the prisoners alike. And it's working.

Unlike other prison work programs, which tend to rely on gruelling manual labor for corporate benefitthe Maine State Prison program gives inmates a chance to gain real-world skills that will help them contribute to society once they've been released.

For one thing, the inmate workers have to earn their way into the program through staff recommendations, competing for a limited number of highly coveted positions in the woodshop.

“You have to get along, learn people skills. When you get out, on the streets, you might have someone you don’t like, but you have to work for them,” explained shop manager Ken Lindsey in interview with the Portland Press Herald“When they get out, are they all going to become woodworkers? Probably not. But they’ll build skills, as long as you’re willing to learn.”

Just a few of the offerings available at the store. Photo by Maine State Prison Showroom/Facebook.

Each inmate worker is paid a wage between $1 and $3 an hour — about 3 to 4 times more than most prisoners.

While most of this money goes directly to court restitution fees and child support payments, there's usually a little bit left over for the inmates to keep themselves — something to show for a hard day's work.

As a result, the state-run program is entirely self-funded, bringing in nearly $2 million dollars in revenue each year. And all that income goes right back into the program, helping to pay for supplies and creating more employment opportunities.

And instead of hammering away at license plates or digging holes out in the heat, the inmates are doing something practical that they can take pride in — something that benefits the public instead of corporate interests.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that America still has a serious prison problem.

Statistics show that nearly half of ex-convicts end up back in jail.

That could reflect poorly on the effectiveness of the American correctional system. But in a country that has more prisons than colleges or universities, where for-profit companies make billions of dollars each year by exploiting unpaid prison labor, and where it's nearly impossible for an ex-convict to get a job after their incarceration — well, why bother, right? One mistake, no matter how small, and you're set to fail for life.

But if we gave those people a second chance instead, it could make all the difference.

Just ask Vic, a former inmate worker at the Maine State Prison woodshop.

He was released in 2011 after 35 years — and he's spent the last five years working at Mystic Woodworks in Warren, Maine, applying the skills he learned behind bars for a full-time job. “He’s constantly on the go, constantly doing his job," says Jamie Doubleday, who co-owns the company with her husband Ray. "He’s a perfectionist that’s perfect for what we do. We feel blessed to have the stars align and have that man do what he does.”

As for Vic himself? He couldn't be happier. "My life has never been better," he says with a laugh to keep from getting too choked up. "And it’s all because I ended up in Maine and got in trouble.”

Here's a short documentary about the program from the Maine Department of Corrections:

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Welcometoterranova and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Welcometoterranova-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.