DEER LODGE — There are nearly 2,400 certified Made In Montana organizations and members across the state, and one of the newest is Montana Correctional Enterprises.
Thousands of pieces of hand-crafted furniture are made on the prison grounds in Deer Lodge, and from design to building the craftsmen pour hours into each piece, making sure it‘s perfect.
Inmate Jeff Martinson has been woodworking in the prison for 17 years.
“It’s an art, and you find characteristics in all of these logs, and it’s cool to watch something like this, become something like that,” he said. “Just working here makes you feel like you’re human again. I’ve really enjoyed doing this, it takes you out of here…It’s a good program.”
This year for the first time the handiwork of Montana Correctional Enterprises will be featured at the Made In Montana Trade Show. The event will be on March 13 and 14 from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. in Helena at the Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds.
“I can’t even begin to describe how big of a deal it is for the offenders, the staff too, but really the offenders, really showcasing what they’re capable of doing," MCE Industries Director Joel Miller said. "Hoping to get more interest in the products. I’m really expecting if we do our job, it will not only help fund the program but possibly grow it.”
MCE generates sufficient revenue to cover 96% of all expenditures, with around 600 inmates currently employed.
Woodworking is just one of the many skills these inmates can learn being a part of the Montana Correctional Enterprises program. They can also learn sewing, upholstery, and even ranching. The MCE Dairy provides milk and cheese to the entire prison. The MCE Sewing program makes inmate uniforms, winter jackets and prison bedding.
No one is forced to work. It’s the inmate’s choice, and it is also very competitive to be hired. Acceptance into the program is based on behavior. The inmate must hold at least a high school equivalency, have 6 consecutive months of good behavior, interview for the job, and be hired.
Inmates in the program said their job not only helps them build a skill, but it also gives them something to look forward to each day.
Inmate Adam Johnson is new to the program. He was hired about four months ago.
“I am excited to come to work every day," Adams said. "It’s fun as far as being where I am at. You take pride in your work you know, to accomplish it, to look at the finished product and be like, hey, man I did that, you know, and somebody out there in the community wants that, that’s the cool part about it.”
These inmates are in Deer Lodge for a reason; each one was convicted of a serious felony offense.
Working for MCE helps them repay that debt to society. The money they earn can be used to purchase things from the prison store or put into a savings account.
They’re also able pay off their restitution, court costs, and alimony. About 15% of each inmate's earnings goes to the Department of Justice Victim Services Fund. The ultimate goal is to help inmates be less of a burden on taxpayers, as well as for them to grow and build skills in the process.
”You can see a change in the inmates that come through the program,” said MCE Production Supervisor Clara Morrison.
Morrison has been working for MCE for almost 20 years. She’ll be the first to tell you she runs a tight ship, but these inmates see her as the “grandma” of the shop.
“You’ll get them and they don’t have work ethic, they don’t care, and all of the sudden you see them caring," she said. "They’re at work on time every day, they’re excited to show - if they get this bench done, they want me to get Joel to show him what they’ve done, and they’re all proud of it.”
Morrison says their entire demeanor changes after they’ve spent some time working for MCE.
“They thank us for helping them, and believing in them," she said. "That’s their big thing, is they finally had someone believe in them.”
Ross Wagner is the Director of Agriculture for MCE and oversees dairy, range cattle, crops, and land management at the prison.
“They’re like you and I, a lot of them have made bad decisions," he said. "Any crime you can think of, we deal with them all. You treat them with respect, treat them like a person, we treat them professional, and hold them to a standard, that they’re professional back to us, and it’s a working ranch that is very successful.”
Another big focus of MCE is reducing recidivism.
The program directors aim to teach the inmates as many life skills and working skills as possible, depending on the amount of the sentence, so when the time comes to return to society they stay on the outside of the prison walls.
“The majority of these people, to the upwards of 90%, are going to be released at some point in time,' said Miller. "If we can do something to help them succeed that they don't come back, I really believe that we're being stewards of public safety, by making opportunities for someone to be a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen when they get out.”
Inmates who participate in Montana Correctional Enterprises for more than a year are 20% to 40% less likely to return to prison for another offense after they’re released.
“The way we look at it, if we have 10 offenders get out, 3 of them were in our program, if they stay out and they don’t re-offend, we’ve just saved the tax payers $100,000 in that year,” Miller said.
MCE provides their products to federal, state, county, and other local government agencies. You will also find their products in non-profits and educational institutions.
All of the products made are available for purchase, as well as special orders, but they must be purchased through a dealer.
If you would like a custom piece of wood furniture or novelty license plate décor hold you can call MCE directly and submit your request.