MACHIASPORT, Maine — The rows of sewing machines are busy, humming through the fabric in the small workshop. The men working the machines are quiet, with heads bent and hands at the task of turning denim fabric into jeans.
Nearby, another pair of men work on reupholstering chairs. One is cutting out new padding while the other reinforces a frame.
This could be any workshop, anywhere. But the salty breeze coming through the open door gives it away: This is the garment room at Downeast Correctional Facility, a former U.S. Air Force base perched on a ridge on the Machiasport peninsula that was converted to a minimum-security prison. The facility houses 149 inmates.
The garment workshop is one of a half-dozen self-sustaining rehabilitation programs at DCF, and Director Scott Jones estimates the programs have saved the state, Washington County towns, and area nonprofit organizations millions of dollars in expenses.
This week, the garment workers were reupholstering 14 seats on a Machiasport school bus.
Welders were busy building a water tank for a local fire department and constructing 40 barbecue grills for the Allagash Waterway.
In the woodworking shop, tables and 27 chairs from a nearby school library were getting refinished.
Recently, a DCF work crew rebuilt a bridge in the Stonington area. The project had a $12,000 budget, and the crew completed the work for $2,000.
“We’ve logged 25,000 hours of public restitution projects, all off the grounds,” Director of Administrative Services Tim Cobb said. These range from bridge construction to painting Grange halls to reconstruction at town halls. This week, the crew was repainting parking space lines on U.S. Route 1 in Machias.
Each working inmate receives compensation. Woodworking supervisor Jeff Mason said his shop workers are paid from $1 a day up to $4 a day.
“We take 25 percent for unpaid fines and restitution,” Jones said. “The prices the customers pay help sustain the program,” he said. At the garment workshop, stitchers are paid from 60 cents an hour up to $3 an hour, depending on their skill level.
“A lot of people really have no idea what is down the end of this long road,” Jones said during a recent tour of the prison. “We are the best-kept secret Down East.”
Not only does the work completed at DCF save municipalities and others money, but the training also prepares inmates for a life outside of prison. Learning to cook can result in a restaurant job; the building trades are always looking for skilled woodworkers or welders.
“This program gives me a chance to train these guys,” welding instructor Craig Smith said. “I’ve got guys now on the outside with very good jobs. If I can keep one guy a year from returning here, I’ve earned my salary.”
Smith’s welding students have created firearms targets for the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, skidder bridges for the Department of Conservation, and more than 20 firetruck tanks for Calais, Jonesport, Whiting, Lubec and the Maine Forest Service, among many others.
Smith said there was no way he could afford the materials to teach his welders unless he worked with communities and state agencies.
“They bring the idea and the materials to us, and we build it,” Smith said. “This program alone has saved communities and the [Maine] Forest Service hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
When asked if his stitchers can find employment once their incarceration is complete, supervisor John Gilmore said enthusiastically “Oh, you betcha.”
But Gilmore said the work ethic the men are learning is equally as important.
“Many of these guys have never held a real job,” he said. “This experience gives them a chance to learn work ethics and gain confidence.”
Workers are expected to arrive at 7 a.m., take half an hour for lunch, and then finish their day at 3 p.m.
And the quality of the work is above average.
“We have a four-month waiting list, and we don’t advertise,” Gilmore said. “We don’t have to.” Word-of-mouth praise has brought the garment shop plenty of work.
Over at the woodworking shop, the hallway is lined with completed furniture and works to be restored.
“We have had people bring their furniture all the way from New Jersey for restoration,” said Jeff Mason, the unit’s supervisor.
The Downeast Correctional Facility was established in 1984 and is commonly referred to by area residents as Bucks Harbor.
“They are an incredible resource for county communities that struggle every day with budgets,” Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said Thursday. “As the former town manager of Machias, we could have not completed a lot of our summertime work without their assistance. They have worked on the Bad Little Falls Park, built the kiosk for the Sunrise Trail, built all new dugouts at South Field. Two years ago, a crew of five men worked five days on the boxcar.”
The train car eventually will become home to the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Do the math — five guys, five days — and all we had to buy was lunch. I even got the paint and the paintbrushes with a grant,” Fitzgerald said.
Along with saving area communities and residents money, the DCF vocational programs also are providing valued training and experience for the inmates.
The best part of the service is that the inmates get to take the skills they are learning wherever they go, Fitzgerald added.
“[The inmates] can come down [to the shops] here, get away from the other prisoners. There is no peer pressure, and the crew boss can work with them one on one,” Jones said. “There are a great number of guys here that are motivated and teachable. They get up every morning and go to work.”
In the facility’s kitchen, the smells of homemade bread and steaming bean soup fill the air.
“This place is known for putting out a good meal,” Jones said, but added it also is training cooks and kitchen helpers for life on the outside.
Julianne Guptill, a cook in the DCF kitchen, said some of the inmates come in with lots of cooking experience while others aren’t sure how to measure salt. “We start them as cleaners, then dishwashers, and then they can move up to bakers and cooks.
“There are always jobs for them on the outside. They are learning marketable skills,” she said.
The garment workshop creates “Harbor Blues,” a brand of jeans that supplies all the jeans and jean jackets for the entire Maine Department of Corrections. It also sews and donates 40 to 50 quilts a year to local organizations for raffles, and makes stuffed toys for Christmas.
Jones said the biggest issue for the facility is keeping the programs operating and staffed. “In these hard times in state government, we need to maintain what we’ve got,” Jones said. He actually would like to expand the vocational offerings, which are staffed by degreed instructors, but money is tight.
“In corrections, for the last decade, rehabilitation has been the buzz word,” Jones said. “The reality is that what we do is not just rehabilitation, it is habilitation. We are teaching basic life skills. These guys have to be ready to participate in life.”