Working from the Inside Out: Inmates on a Maine prison farm


By CHRISTINA COOKE
Photographs by Danee Voorhees


Salt Magazine

ESCAPING THIS PRISON would be as easy as crossing the front lawn, stepping off the property and hitching a ride to Moody’s Diner down the road for a slice of four-berry pie and a phone call. At the Bolduc Correctional Facility, Maine’s prison farm, the fences serve to keep the cows in the pasture and the porcupines out of the apple orchard, not the inmates in the yard. Rather, it’s Maine’s State Prison, better known to inmates as the “supermax,” which looms behind a chaos of chain-link fences and razor wire across the road, that reminds Bolduc inmates where they’ve been and where they could end up if they’re not careful. Because all of the Bolduc inmates are less than five years from release and want to make it out, they decide to stick around. And behave while they’re at it.

*

IN A WOOD-SHINGLED WORKSHOP, where four prisoners in the Electrical Trades Vocational Program meet every weekday for class, Barry Thomas aims a heat gun at the end of a PVC pipe. He wears a mustard colored shirt tucked into Wrangler jeans and a Casio watch set on military time. His body bears several bluish tattoos — tattoos he gave himself when he was 13 with a mixture of toothpaste, cigarette ash, and the soot of burnt plastic. On the inside of his left forearm, a circled “Jean” reveals the first girl he kissed, and the “13 ½” on the fragile skin beneath his thumb stands for 12 jurors, one judge, and a half-assed chance of getting out of trouble.

Barry has had plenty of chances to get his tattoos removed, but he has chosen to keep them. He says they made him more effective as a social worker and a licensed substance abuse counselor at the homeless crisis shelter where he worked for 12 years. Years before he ended up in prison. He believes they help to convince struggling kids that he could understand them, that he had struggled too.

When the pipe becomes malleable, Barry carries it across the room to his lab space, where an electrical meter mounted on a vinyl-sided wall simulates the houses exterior. He fits the pipe into a hole in the bottom of the meter, bends it toward the wall, then clamps it against the siding. Barry insists on being good at whatever he does, and right now, it’s electrical work. If he passes the exam at the end of the program, he’ll acquire a state electrical license.

Medium-sized and muscular, Barry is not big enough to intimidate, but not small enough to be intimidated — a convenient stature, he says, for avoiding fights in prison. At 44, and as one of the older prisoners at the facility, Barry says he has nothing to prove anymore and carries himself with the calm confidence of a man who knows who he is, what he wants, and how to get it.

*

“HEY BOSS,” Tobey Grip calls from under the husk of a 1970 Mustang the class is restoring. Brad, his instructor, crosses the garage and peers under the car where Tobey lies on a creeper, a drive shaft cradled in his left elbow. It’s not fitting into place. After spending over three years in the higher-security prisons around the state, Tobey arrived at Bolduc a year ago. He has already completed the six-month Auto Body program, but has stayed on to help the next set of students while he serves out the remainder of his sentence. Once Brad and Tobey agree that the drive-shaft is too long, Tobey scoots out from under the car.

Tobey is 28 years old. He has a young, clean-shaven face with prominent cheekbones, wears oval-shaped wire-rimmed glasses and spikes his short brown hair up and out with gel. And while his square jaw often works a stick of gum, his serious, focused expression softens into a boyish smile when he talks about his family.

Around the body shop, Tobey moves with purpose, striding from one side to the other to find a tool or consult the boss. He loves to work and always has. Having left high school early to install windshields and storefronts for Oakes and Parkhurst Glass Company, he says it’s a job he’ll return to after his release. At Bolduc, Tobey pursued the Auto Body program with such determination that the administration allowed him to skip the waiting list and enter three weeks after his arrival.

At the workbench, Tobey props the wall of tubing of the ill-fitting drive shaft against the back of a yellow-bristled scrub brush. While a classmate steadies the shaft, Tobey runs a sander over the end piece to shorten it. Forked yellow sparks arc through the air, bouncing off his sweat-shirt and face shield, but Tobey doesn’t flinch or back away. A high-pitched grinding sound arises and the space smels of burning.

*

THE CAFETERIA is mostly empty, but behind the buffet counter that divides the room, six members of the Bolduc Culinary Arts program move from fridge to oven to counter in the metallic kitchen, preparing the annual Harvest Feast for their fellow prisoners. In the back room, Pete Hager spoons ham salad onto a baking pan covered with iceberg lettuce and aluminum foil. He looks across the metal counter at his instructor, Guy Lombardo, who is shaping the ham alad on his pan into a full body profile of a pig. Pete looks down at the shapeless pile of meat on his own tray. “I have no artistic ability,” he notes. Guy, whose well-fed stomach bulges irregularly under his purple shirt and Halloween tie, explains that Pete just has to imagine the shape he wants to create. “It’s got to be in your mind,” he says, without looking up from his work. He adjusts the definition of the pig’s back leg, then reaches for Pete’s tray to help him out. “Peel a carrot and make a curly tail,” he suggests.

Every day, the studetns in the Culinary Arts program prepare lunch and dinner for the 215 inmates at the facility. And each October, after the season’s harvest, the class prepares an all-out buffet where they serve up one of the cows raised in the prison’s pastures, potatoes grown in its field, 20 types of salad, and 560 pieces of pie.

Pete worked as a short-order cook before coming to prison and is one of the more motivated students in the class. At 33, he is a stocky man with rounded, muscular shoulders and thick arms. He has pale skin, a Fu Manchu mustache, which his mother encourages him to shave when she hears of it on the phone. After Guy carves each pig an eye and eyelashes from the radishes, Pete slides both trays onto a multi-tiered cart. Then the two men start in on the chicken salad.

At 3:30, one third of the inmates enter the cafeteria for the feast. Teenagers and 50-year-olds, clean-shaven and whiskered, in t-shirts, baseball caps, tattoos, and nametags form a line that extends out the door and up the stairs. Barry and Tobey each take a pre-served plate from Pete, choose one of the rolls spilling out from a giant aluminum foil cornucopia and receive a slice of roast beef from Guy. Each man picks his way down the buffet tables, takes his seat in the dim, low-ceilinged cafeteria, and amidst the noise and movement around him, eats his dinner in silence, self-contained. After finishing their meals, each man deposits his tray at the window by the sink, then returns to his room for the nigh’s formal count.

*

THE WAY of the Bolduc Correctional Facility is along Route 1, a road that winds through downtowns and over tidal flats on its way up the Maine coastline. The thousand-acre prison property, complete with a white silo and peeling red barn, is a turn off the coastal highway in Warren. Everybody at Bolduc has a job, whether it’s cultivating crops on the farm, punching numbers into license plates, mopping the hallways or cleaning the bathrooms. Some, like Barry, Tobey and Pete, choose to participate in one of the prison’s six vocational trades programs. These three men are determined to take advantage of the opportunities at Bolduc so when their time is up and they head out the door with $50 and their box of personal items, they’ll have some prospects for the future.

Though Bolduc is tamer and offers more program than the “supermaxes” where some of the inmates were before, it is still a prison. You cross the front lawn, use the bathroom, attend class, eat lunch, and all the while, the guards watch. They conduct informal counts every hour on the hour, and formally count inmates six times a day.

*

BARRY HAS a year left on his four-and-a-half year sentence for elevated aggravated forgery. After he discovered that his partner in a used-car business was cheating him, he signed the partner’s name to a couple of state vehicle titles. He makes no apologies or excuses for committing the crime, and does not ask for anyone’s pity. “If you do me wrong, and I attempt to rectify that, regardless of the consequences, then that’s what I need to do as a person,” he says, his voice coarsely mellow, calmly defiant. Barry justifies his prison sentence with the things he did and wasn’t caught for.

Over time, Barry has learned to work the system so that his time passes smoothly. “They make the rules and you obey them,” he says, “and that’s not going to change. ‘Yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ and ‘how you doin’’ to the guards. The less they notice you, the less likely they are to tear apart your room in a search. Do your own time,” he says. “People in prison have problems, and you don’t need more than you already have.” Barry may meet a prisoner he passes in the hall or help another guy with his electrical work, but he keeps his exchanges shallow because he does not believe he can trust the other prisoners.

While Barry avoids relationships on the inside, he also finds it hard to maintain the relationships he had on the outside. A year and a half ago, his wife left him after 20 years of marriage and a son. He didn’t talk to anybody after the loss. “You can’t unload your emotions,” he says. “You can’t voice your opinion. So you just eat it.” In prison, he explains, you try to disengage your feelings until you are in the position to do something more than just turn them over and over in your head. In prison, he concedes, loneliness is inevitable.

Every evening, Barry works out in the weight room. “It’s a way of pushing some of the anger away from what goes on and makes you emotionally tired,” he explains. “Push the anger. Push the world. Just see if you can.” The weight room is a place of mirrors and metal and brute strength. Often, 60 men swarm through it, all lifting and groaning and yelling and cussing. In the front of the room, Barry positions a 315-pound barbell over his shoulders. He squats, staying down for a few seconds to prepare for the push up. His face strains as his legs power the bar up, up, and back onto the rack. “It’s so easy in prison not to feel alive,” Barry says. So he works out to hurt, because the pain assures him that he still is.

*

TOBEY IS 18 months away from going home. He’s serving a six-year sentence for nearly beating his uncle to death. Out of respect to the people involved, Tobey is reluctant to speak of his reasons and becomes subdued when he talks about the incident. “A few people know,” he says, “and that’s about it. I really don’t talk much about it.” His words come slowly. Silence creeps in between his sentences and sits a while. He crinkles his brow and looks down at his hands.

Tobey’s uncle — his father’s foster brother — sexually abused a member of his family. When Tobey found out, he confronted his uncle. “I went over there, got in a fight with him, and probably fought a little longer than I should have,” he recalls. “But it just happened so fast, and you get so mad, and the next thing you know, emotion just takes over. And before you know it, you’ve gone too far.” Tobey says that if he were in the situation again, he would most likely do the same thing. His uncle had molested somebody before, gone to jail, gotten out, and done it again. “Somehow, you’ve got to break that chain,” says Tobey. “The system can’t do it, and there was no other way, and that was the only way I knew to do it.”

Though prison has not affected Tobey’s sense of justice, it has changed him in other ways. Working in the Auto Body shop, Tobey says, has boosted his self-confidence. It has given him pride in his work and taught him patience. And since he has taken on the role of shop assistant, he feels more comfortable interacting with others.

In the few-steps-wide cell he shares with three other men, Tobey opens the doors of his locker and pulls out a photo album. He turns to snapshots of a beaming brown-haired boy — his five-year-old son Matthew — born to his girlfriend a month after he landed in prison. Matthew runs, jumps, dances across the photographs, dresses like a lion for Halloween and splashes during his swimming lessons. “He’s my little pride and joy, my little buddy,” says Tobey, grinning. “He’s so full of life, it’s crazy.”

Tobey says he and Linda haven’t yet explained the concept of prison to their son; they’re waiting until Tobey is out and settled at home. Meanwhile, Matthew things his father is at work. “Last night, he was like, ‘How much longer are you going to work — a million-trillion hours?’” says Tobey. “He don’t understand why I can’t be at home when he wants me to be.”

At the end of September 2003, Tobey and Linda were married among the stacks of paperbacks in Bolduc’s library. During the honeymoon furlough that immediately followed, Tobey stayed awake every hour, every minute. “She fell asleep,” he remembers of Linda. “I stayed awake and pretty much just held her and looked at her, you know. It was nice to have her fall asleep in my arms. She looked so peaceful, like a little angel lyin’ there sleepin’ and it was wonderful.”

Soon enough, though, Tobey returned to his prison cell. To his lower bunk. To a boron-soaked foam mattress, and a clear plastic alarm clock, one that exposes its wires and anything else hidden inside. He returned to his world within a world, where rules and routines keep life constant. “I’m here, I one spot. Everything’s the same,” he reflects. “Out there, everything’s all revolving. There’s constant change. And when you go back, you’re just in awe.”

 *

PETE HAS a year and a half left to serve. His alcoholism brought him to prison. He has been drinking since he was nine years old, when he would open beer cans for his father and take a few swallows himself. “I caught on after that,” Pete says, “and it was about the only way I could be happy after a while.” When he was 13, his father died in his sixth and last drunk driving accident. After the accident, Pete moved to New Jersey to live with his uncle, who was also an alcoholic. He fought in school and drank and attended two separate month-long rehabs when he was 15 that “didn’t do much good.”

Though he managed to hold jobs as a cook at Friendly’s and as a bartender at Applebee’s — a bad career choice, he cracks — he drank through most of his twentieds as well. “After a while, I just wanted to basically drink myself to death ’cause it was going that way,” he says wryly. “I was spending five to six hundred dollars a week on liquor. It was crazy, I couldn’t stop.”

Then one nigh in Bath, Maine, Pete pounded over ten margaritas while Vicodin for his neck pain. Then he blacked out. The police woke him at 2:30 in the morning. “You walked a woman home from the bar,” they said. “You hit her with a hammer and you left.” Elevated aggravated assault. Fifteen years in prison, all but six suspended. Pete says he doesn’t remember a think — he barely knew the woman and can’t figure out his motivation. “All these years,” he reflects, “and it’s going to take that to make me stop. Up until then, you think, well, I’m only hurting myself.”

Pete thinks about his release a lot, and he is terrified about it. “My whole life in here is scared about getting out,” he reveals. “I’m scared about everything. I’m more scared about getting out than I ever was coming in.” Pete wants more than anything to reclaim his life. He wants to put his prison experience behind him, but he knows he can’t turn his back on it completely. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this experience,” he says. “I want to forget it, but I can’t forget it, because you’ve gotta remember what brought you here.”

Though prison has jaded him and locked him away from living, Pete has grown stronger since he’s been in. He has learned to recognize when he’s getting hustled and to stand up for himself without getting in a fight. For the first time in a while, he has been able to learn while sober and has involved himself in almost every trades program offered by the prison system. “I want to be educated so that when I get out, I’m stayin’ out. I see too many people I like coming back three times since I’ve been in.” Now, Pete says, he has hope. “When I came in, I was without hope, depleted,” he says. “That’s changed 100 percent. I’ve got a lot of hope.”

*

AS THE SNOW falls, melts, and falls once more, the men move closer to what’s out there beyond the Bolduc Correctional Facility and beyond Warren, Maine. They move closer to the houses they know, the families they love, and time all their own. Barry looks forward to riding his motorcycle over the straight, flat highways of the west. “That’s the ultimate, motorcycling,” he says, “that’s when you’re really free.” Tobey can’t wait to move in with his wife and teach his son to ice skate on frozen ponds near the house. And Pete looks forward to visiting his mother and tasting her Portuguese sweet bread, maybe her orange cake as well. Until then, they stay put in prison. They connect the circuits, install the drive shafts, set out the salad dressing, and avoid breaking the rules and being shipped back to the “supermax,” a life without leave, a life without hope.

One Comment

  1. Johnathan
    4 years ago

    Beautifully written..

    Such a shame how many people end up in prison…

    Looked up Warren after talking to a high school buddy that recently was released after two years.

    I think, if you let it, prison at it’s fundamental core makes one super-analyze themselves to a point that they simply have to deal with their “flaws”.

    At-any-rate, very nice and thank you.

    Reply

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