- Associated Press - Sunday, February 15, 2015

SMYRNA, Del. (AP) - Roger Boatswain’s father always wanted his son to someday take over the family cabinetry business in Wilmington, but the plan was derailed when Boatswain was sentenced to 30 years behind bars for armed bank robbery.

Now, nearly halfway through his prison term, the 48-year-old inmate has renewed hope that he can follow his father’s path and lead a law-abiding life when he is released.

That is because Boatswain is one of 90 men who train and work in the James T. Vaughn prison’s woodshop, which sells handmade furniture to public and state agencies at below market value.

“If it wasn’t for the woodshop, and the stress I enjoy (in the shop), it’d be a dull incarceration,” Boatswain, a shop manager, said. “I need to spend a large amount of time doing this every day - doing something creative and productive.”

Delaware Correctional Industries, a division of the state’s prison system, employees over 250 inmates each year in work programs, such as automotive repair and maintenance, printing and silk screening, and garment production. The programs help inmates develop skills they can use outside prison.

“Most of the guys we have never held a job on the outside,” Director of Correctional Industries Carl Barker said. “We teach them to get up and come to work every day.”

For Boatswain, the woodshop is just like any other job. He clocks in at 6 a.m. on weekdays and works an eight-hour shift.

He and the other inmates earn 25 cents an hour for the first 90 days after they are hired. Then, they get a nickel raise, followed by 2 cent raises for positive evaluations every six months thereafter. The top 5 percent earn $2 an hour, Barker said.

The shop is known for offering a variety of high-quality services - furniture design and creation, caning, framing, upholstering, furniture repair and refinishing. About 85 percent of the shop’s projects are done for the public, while the remaining work is done for schools and public buildings, including most recently Legislative Hall and Superior Court.

After being sworn in as a Superior Court judge in June, Judge Ferris W. Wharton needed to order furniture for his New Castle County chambers.

He looked through a furniture magazine, but was more impressed by the custom-built table and barrister’s bookcase-style piece in Judge Paul R. Wallace’s office. After hearing the furniture was made by inmates, Wharton was sold.

“This is a win-win,” he said. “It’s a productive thing for inmates to do and the cost recommends it.”

Wharton had the inmates refinish an old oak desk he owned and had them create a computer desk, coffee tables and standing desk. State employees who purchase their furniture from the prison woodshop save between 40 and 60 percent, Barker said.

Inmate Luis Ortiz, 43, said doing woodwork for judges and other public officials makes him proud. “This here has made me a new person,” he said.

The Camden, New Jersey, man is seven months away from completing an 11-year sentence for robbery, assault and drug offenses. He is confident his woodworking and upholstery skills will help him find a job when he is released this year.

“I’m confident that I can do this on the street,” he said. “I never really had a steady job before. This has been a learning experience.”

Ortiz also credited the shop with being an incentive to keep him out of trouble while in prison. Inmates are “fired” from the woodshop if they misbehave in their housing units or anywhere else in the prison.

“We expect good behavior or they won’t be in here,” trades instructor Wayde Campbell said.

Campbell explained that in the shop they expect inmates to be responsible, but also try to create a more relaxed and team-centered atmosphere. For example, the instructors are called by their first names or nicknames, rather than their formal titles and last names used in the rest of the prison.

Barker said these vocational work programs should be embraced because they are cost-savers for the state and help ensure inmates do not re-offend. Nationwide statistics show 45 percent of inmates in these programs will return to prison. While still high, this is much less than the 85 percent in the regular population, Barker said.

Boatswain hopes to be one of the inmates who will not return when he is released. He is awaiting the day he can take over his father’s shop - Trio Cabinetry.


Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

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