May 27, 2020

Women inmates play Santa Prison time used for good Cause

CHARLESTON – Some women at the Charleston Correctional Facility are devoting their talent and time while incarcerated to making a difference in the lives of some needy children.

Several of the approximately 25 women inmates at the minimum security facility have created an assortment of handmade toys and clothing for children in the Charleston area.

The 200 gifts were made throughout the year for the Santa Cause program sponsored by the town of Charleston and were distributed to local children at a Christmas party Friday at the town hall.

“This is probably one of the more positive things to come out of this whole experience since I’ve been in,” said Leslie Martin Thompson of Lewiston, who is serving time for embezzling from a former employer to support a drug habit.

This is the third year that women at the facility have volunteered to make items for the Santa Cause program under the tutelage of Deborah Berce, a Charleston correctional officer who volunteered to help the inmates with their projects. The women already have begun projects for next year’s program, even though they will be transferred to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham this summer as part of a reorganization effort by the Department of Corrections.

Terry Hall, chairman of the Charleston Board of Selectmen, is among many local officials who will be sorry to see the women transferred. She said the gifts made by the inmates were not only beautiful but were well accepted by children.

“You see these little faces light right up,” Hall said of the children who receive the gifts. She recalled this week that one small boy approached her last year after he had received a pair of mittens made by an inmate.

“He looked up at me and said, ‘These were made just for me. Feel, they’re perfect,’ ” she said.

In exchange for the help provided by the inmates to local needy children at Christmas, the town of Charleston donates appropriate Christmas gifts to juveniles detained at the Northern Maine Juvenile Detention Center for a special Christmas program.

“It’s been a working relationship [with the town of Charleston], the good-neighbor policy really works,” Eric Hanson, superintendent of the facility, said this week

While the children on the receiving end are delighted with the gifts, the program is therapeutic for the inmates and improves their self-esteem, according to Stephen Berry, chief of security at the facility.

“What makes the whole program successful is the volunteer effort put in by these inmates,” Berry said recently. “It’s little to do with the program and all from the heart.”

Some participating inmates say the volunteer project is more of a healing exercise, something to while away the hours while they reflect on their misdeeds.

“I know it turns a negative experience into a positive experience, one that I can be proud of,” Angela Parent said. The Rumford resident, who is serving time for aiding and abetting the sexual abuse of a minor, said the hair scrunches and stuffed animals she makes brighten her days.

Carey Morin of Auburn, who was convicted of forgery, said it felt nice to help somebody else after hurting someone in the past.

“It’s a good thing to think you’ve positively helped someone else,” she said.

Inmate Cathyann Brown of Dover-Foxcroft, who is serving three years for theft and burglary, said the teddy bears she made were her way of making amends.

“I’ve done a lot of bad things in society, and it’s nice to know I can do good things for society now,” she said.

The inmates wish they were provided more time to work on their handicrafts. They can use the sewing machine for the projects only a few hours a week under Berce’s watch.

“We’re lucky we have it [the handicraft program], thanks to Debbie,” said Martin. The inmate said Berce taught her and the others how to do the needlework and sewing.

According to Berry, the sewing machine used by the inmates was purchased with “welfare” funds received from the sale of canteen items. The supplies used are either donated or purchased by the facility. Some inmates have even been known to donate their own funds for the supplies they need, he said.

Berce, who says the women should be commended for helping others, has the responsibility of making sure the women have the supplies they need for their projects. Praised by correctional officials for her volunteer leadership, Berce said this week that any praise should go to the women inmates. The handicraft work is a win-win situation for all, she said.

Inmate Doraina Skidgel of Caribou agrees that it’s beneficial and healing for all. Skidgel, who is serving time for burglary and theft by deception, said she plans to continue making gifts for the needy after she’s released because she’s found that it is more blessed to give than to take.

“When I’ve done a bear or something and it’s gorgeous, it lifts my spirits,” the inmate said.

The irony of the fact that she has never seen the youngsters receive their presents is not lost on her.

“I hope when I get on the outside I will be able to see the faces of children opening their gifts,” Skidgel said.

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