Crafting a Future
One way to escape from prison is to dig a tunnel through rock and soil with a purloined kitchen spoon, but what if all that energy and imagination went instead into creating lasting works of beauty?
When the prison gate closed behind Don Briere eight years ago, he stepped outside to a shattered life with “nothing, really.” After 17 years behind the NH State Prison walls in Concord, he had no job and no home, except for a bed at his uncle’s house.
Like most former inmates, his return to society would be littered with obstacles and — sadly — likely to fail. The recidivism rate for men released from the NH State Prison is 42 percent; nearly half will be behind bars again.
It’s a good bet, though, that Briere won’t be among them. He had an advantage that most don’t, an advantage that would help him overcome the obstacles. When his uncle picked him up at the prison, Briere had money in the bank. He would use it — and a donated lathe — to start a business now so successful that he recently expanded it.
He made the money in the prison woodworking shop, in a program called Hobbycraft. It’s only for a select, well-behaved few, about 120 inmates; if you get in trouble, you’re out. Briere was determined to stay in because he loved the work and he could earn decent money by selling what he made.
“A friend taught me how to use a lathe, and I made a candy dish with it,” he says. “I sent it to my mother and she loved it.” He made another one and put it in the prison’s retail store. It sold right away. He made salad bowls, key chains, bird houses and other wooden items. They sold too.
His obvious talent would soon be noticed by someone who would help Briere reach heights he couldn’t have imagined.
Terry Moore, an award-winning furniture maker and one of the founders of the NH Furniture Masters Association, began mentoring inmates in the prison’s woodworking shop 15 years ago as part of the group’s volunteer prison outreach program, a program inspired by then-Superior Court Justice Kathleen McGuire.
At the prison, Moore connected with Briere and began to introduce him to the craft’s finer aspects: veneering, carving, dovetailing and more. Briere eventually gravitated to woodturning and his work became much more complex — like the chess pieces and a 19th-century chess table so remarkable they attracted the attention of local media.
Fast-forward to today. Moore says Briere’s work “goes up against mine and other furniture masters.” In fact, Briere beat out all of the state’s furniture masters to win Best in Wood Accessory and Best in Show (twice) at League of NH Craftsmen’s Sunapee fairs.
Now a juried member of the League, Briere is pulling in thousands of dollars for his work, much of it made of segmented pieces and sometimes semi-precious stones. He has a studio in Brentwood called New England Custom Woodturning and a recently opened gallery next to it. He’s still using the lathe that he started the business with, which was donated by the Furniture Masters Association.
Moore says what Briere has done in a very competitive field is “no small feat” and that he is “proud as punch.” Something else he’s proud of — “Of all the people who have taken our woodworking program, no one has gone back to prison,” Moore says. “No one.”
And it’s not just Briere who is “a wild success story,” as Moore puts it. Moore and other Furniture Masters members have also mentored others who have been juried by the League and are also producing high-end works.
What accounts for the wild success? “I think the work teaches some fundamental lessons in life that they missed,” says Moore. “With woodworking, you end up knee-deep in mistakes, and you can either give up or try again. You learn problem-solving, patience and self-discipline. It’s working them as much as they’re working it. It’s kind of a Zen thing, and it transforms their vision of who they are as a person.”
They also learn that they must give back. The Furniture Masters Association features inmates’ work at its annual auction and exhibition. If a piece sells, the inmates must donate some of the proceeds to a charity of their choice.
Briere was more than willing to give back because he had received so much: “They genuinely want to see people return to society with something under their belt other than anger.”
The Furniture Masters’ volunteer Hobbycraft program at the men’s prison is a showpiece in the panoply of programs designed to ease transition to the outside world. It is said to be a model for what could be, given enough resources, especially since it has reduced the recidivism rate for participants to zero.
Aside from the Hobbycraft program, which also offers instruction in leather work, art, basket-making and other crafts, others in the population of 2,300 inmates — about 250 of them — can get work experience in what’s called Correctional Industries, trade jobs that can provide transferable skills — sign-making and engraving, printing, furniture refinishing, upholstery and chair-caning, woodworking services and, of course, license plate-making. Work orders are taken from state agencies — supplying firewood to state parks is one — municipalities, and private companies and individuals; the inmates earn up to $4 an hour for their labor on a three- or four-hour shift.
In the final stage of incarceration, the Community Corrections program provides additional support for transition into the community. There are three halfway houses, now called transitional housing units, which allow inmates to look for and hold a job in the community. A transitional work center on prison grounds allows inmates to participate in off-site, supervised work crews.
“Everyone has a reentry plan with a case manager,” says Kimberly MacKay, the program’s director. A family connection center helps inmates reunite with their families. An ID card, key to life on the outside, is obtained.
The more tools former inmates have, the better, because they have the additional burden of operating in a world that has passed them by while they were behind bars. Many have never sent an email, never made a call on a cell phone. “Some don’t even know how to turn on the [touchless] water faucet in a bathroom in a store or restaurant,” says MacKay. “It can be overwhelming.”
The first time Michelle Vanagel got out of the NH Women’s Correctional Facility in Goffstown, she moved in with her sister because, like Don Briere, she had no money and no job. “With felonies on my record, I couldn’t pass a background check,” she says. “No company would even look at me.”
It wasn’t long until she heard the call of her old life. She moved into a rooming house in Nashua — a “crack shack,” she calls it. She started using and selling drugs again, and soon got caught.
After Vanagel left prison the second time, she rented an apartment that she couldn’t afford, hoping to have safer housing away from her old friends. “I was overwhelmed,” she says. “I was working two jobs. The rent was taking every dime I had.” She again turned to drugs.
The third time she was in prison, she took part in an intensive drug treatment program. It helped. What also helped was an inexpensive and safe place to go when she was released.
She moved into Rise Above recovery housing, a privately funded sober living center in Nashua, paying just $150 a week. “I did things differently this time,” she says.
Differently enough, Vanagel was hired full-time at the “sober house” as the lead behavioral health technician. “Now I’m able to support myself,” she says. She can pay her rent plus all the other bills she has because of her incarceration — a parole fee, a fee for her public defender and child support.
Vanagel’s success is no thanks to a vocational program at the women’s prison. Unlike the men’s prison, where Briere and many others learned a trade, the women’s prison has a dearth of vocational programs that teach marketable skills, because there is no space for it. Crocheting, sewing, painting bird houses, and some business and computer classes is about it.
“When the men get out, they have a trade,” says Vanagel. “They can earn $15 or $16 an hour. Women end up waitressing or something like that for $8 an hour.”
Another former female inmate, who we’ll call Jennifer, agrees it’s a problem. She is at the start of her transition to the community, having been released in early November. She’s putting together her resumé, listing one of the few credentials she has — the ServSafe certification for food handling she got in prison.
That could help her get a restaurant job, but that type of work is often problematic for former inmates with drug problems, like Jennifer, who had a heroin addiction. After her first prison term, she got a job at a diner and soon got in trouble. “You’re working around people who are using,” she says. “I lost the job.”
Even so, she says, she hadn’t been making enough money to support herself: “I couldn’t deal and I couldn’t feel. I started doing stupid things. I started stealing.”
She’s hopeful this time will be different, as it was for Michelle Vanagel. Instead of the rooming house she went to the last time (“I was living with a bunch of addicts”), she went to the safe, structured, drug-free environment at the Dismas Home in Manchester.
The privately funded facility — a remodeled house on a quiet street — accommodates seven former inmates. Jack McCarthy, the co-director with his wife Julie, says, “Our project is meant to break the cycle of recidivism by creating a family atmosphere, something many never had, or if they had, it was one of turmoil and conflict. Here, they can begin to build trust.” Support also comes from volunteers like the students from St. Anselm College who are helping Jennifer with her resumé and computer skills.
On average, residents stay at Dismas Home, paying nominal rent, for five to seven months. Time enough, Jennifer says, to “hopefully” get a job that can support her. One thing she is sure of: “I finally have a good steppingstone.”
“We have a lot of people trying very hard to prepare women for release, but recidivism is still too high,” says Liz Tentarelli, president of the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire, an organization that has focused on issues concerning female incarceration.
The latest statistics, she says, show 34 percent of women are back in prison within three years of being released. She notes that the rate has dropped for five years straight, as it has for the men, and she credits the “committed people” who are trying the best they can to help. “There are good things happening at the prison,” she says.
But not good enough. “If someone can’t earn a living because they’re working at low-wage jobs, probably part-time, they are more likely to recidivate,” Tentarelli says. “It’s understandable. If they don’t have enough money, they are going to fall back into old patterns. There is a definite need to have women more prepared.”
The League did a study back in 2009 that compared the men’s prison to the women’s in relation to preparation for release. Some of the highlights: Men had eight vocational programs; women had three. Men had a large space to work in, while the space for women was small to nonexistent. Men had classrooms where they can get a GED [now replaced with HiSET], a high school diploma and college-level courses, with general and law libraries as resources; for women, there was limited classroom space, with GEDs getting the emphasis. Only two women had earned a high school diploma at the prison in the previous 20 years.
To advocates for female prisoners, the solution was obvious — a new prison that offers the same programs that male prisoners have.
The push for parity began back in the late 1980s. At that time, there was no prison at all for women; they were shipped out of state to serve their sentences, as far away as Colorado and Maryland. “It was appalling, both morally and legally,” says Elliott Berry, managing attorney at NH Legal Assistance in Manchester. “So many had children and family here. How do you keep families together, have a family to come back to, with that kind of distance?”
In 1987, Berry represented a female inmate who filed suit against the state claiming that it had violated the equal protection rights of female prisoners. A federal court found in her favor and ordered New Hampshire to provide parity with a prison for women in the state. The NH Women’s Correctional Facility in Goffstown opened two years later.
The facility was said to be inadequate from the start, not equal to what the men had. “Goffstown is such an inappropriate physical environment to provide anything close to equal conditions for vocational training opportunities,” Berry says.
There was talk of the need a new prison for years, but it never happened. Berry says, “You just have to shake your head. No one was saying it wasn’t necessary, but because there’s a dog fight for resources in the Legislature every two years, incarcerated felons can be pretty low on the political radar.”
In 2011, Berry represented four female inmates — Michelle Vanagel was one of them — in a class-action lawsuit to require the state to provide equal protection in several aspects of prison life, including educational and vocational programs. That prompted action to get construction going on the new prison. Groundbreaking happened in August 2014. It’s slated to open this fall, with still-to-be-determined programs that prison officials say will provide the skills most transferable to the community.
But there’s yet another obstacle, one that may delay the opening — hiring staff. According to Jeff Lyons at the NH Department of Corrections, the staff has to be “doubled, at least.” Not an easy task; applicants are hard to find for what can be a stressful job, often with lots of required overtime. “Corrections is not necessarily one people think of as a career choice,” Lyons says. “Plus, they have to meet rigorous standards, have a clean criminal record and be able to complete the corrections academy.” The starting salary: $35,000, including hazardous duty pay.
“What you do for men, you should do for women,” says Eric Grant, who just served a 26-year sentence at the state prison. “Men have opportunities in prison; they can come out with a decent trade. The women don’t have that.” He’s glad to see that a remedy is in sight with the new prison.
Grant, now in the woodworking business in Manchester, is another of the “wild success” stories that the Furniture Masters’ Terry Moore talks about. The two started their work together eight years into Grant’s sentence. He had already been spending time in the woodworking shop, but says, “once the furniture masters came in, I knew it would be good. I was making furniture, but nothing on that scale.” On such a scale, in fact, the family of former governor John Sununu bought many of his pieces. He used the money he made from those sales and others to help support his family and to pay for college.
Though he had been told in high school he wasn’t college material, he took college courses in prison, mostly from visiting New England College professors, and, 15 years later, he had two bachelor’s degrees and was halfway to a master’s. He had a GPA of 3.92.
“Did you know that the recidivism rate drops as the level of education goes up?” he asks. He cites statistics like those of PrisonEducation.com, a national advocacy group: Some high school courses drop the rate of return to prison from up to 85 percent nationally to around 55 percent; vocational training, to about 30 percent; an associate degree, 13.7; a bachelor’s, 5.6 percent; and a master’s, 0 percent.
For Grant, making the transition out of prison was “no problem.” He was moved into a work release program, living at the prison system’s transitional housing unit Manchester. While there, he was hired by Dick Anagnost, a Manchester real estate developer, to do light maintenance, but when Grant’s woodworking skills became evident, he was put to work doing that. He set up shop with his own tools in a space provided by Anagnost. One of his projects was a bank of closets at a country club owned by former governor Craig Benson. No longer on work release, Grant now lives with his family.
Like Don Briere, Grant is a juried member of the League of NH Craftsmen, thanks in large measure to the Furniture Masters program. He too has won awards at the Sunapee fair — Best Traditional Design, People’s Choice and Best Contemporary Design.
Grant says that, on the first day he spent in his shop on Manchester’s Willow Street, he opened the garage door to find that his shop — the shop that would take him into his new life — was right next to the Valley Street jail. He heard a voice on the loudspeaker there call out to the prisoners,
“Clear the yard. Return to your rooms.”
It was familiar, haunting.