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Prison rehab

Tattered furniture gets a second chance from inmate apprentices, and it's a steal

The chair was a wreck: a lifeless cushion, sagging springs, ripped and stained fabric. No one at my neighbors' garage sale gave it a second glance. But I noticed the antique wood, sturdy frame, and comfortable, ample girth. So when my neighbors offered me the unsold chair at the end of the day, I accepted, and lugged it to some nearby fabric stores.

Quickly, my free chair grew pricey. Fabric Place in Woburn estimated the job at $640 (including $60 in new springing); Calico Corners in Acton wanted $775 (including $75 worth of tacks). And those were without fabric.

Undeterred, I searched online and found a cheaper solution: I took my chair to prison.

The Massachusetts Department of Correction runs a business, Massachusetts Correctional Industries or MassCor, that manufactures a variety of products, from notebook binders and mattresses to flags and silkscreened T-shirts. At MCI Norfolk, a small and carefully selected group of inmates rejuvenates ragged furniture.

Behind a large metal door, in a warehouse-type room with a cement floor, white tables hold bolts of fabric; air lines drop from the ceiling, providing power for pneumatic tools; and fluorescent lights cast a bright, institutional glow. While inmates manufacture mattresses at the far end of the room, three men are working on a small, Victorian-style sofa, a Queen Anne chair, and a club chair. (The shop accepts virtually any upholstered furniture except recliners and sleep-sofas.) Steven Ward, 32, bends over the Victorian settee, then stops to explain how he used an ''eight-way tie" to strengthen the springs, reinforced the edges with a double-welt, and fashioned new fabric-covered buttons. ''When I finish this, I'll feel proud of it," said Ward, who entered prison as a juvenile and has completed both his high school equivalency and degree in interdisciplinary arts from Boston University.

When Ward started in the upholstery shop in 1989, he said, he was intimidated, worried that a wrong cut might waste the limited fabric. Now the work is second nature, and he hopes to use his skills when he's released. (According to a Department of Correction spokeswoman, Diane Wiffin, Ward and other prisoners declined to discuss the reasons for their incarceration or their sentence lengths.) Ward said he prefers working on tapestry fabrics, not solids, and likes pieces where the wood shows. He takes satisfaction in preserving the integrity of an antique, and imagines the family that might appreciate a spruced-up heirloom.

Gerson Cheves, who shared the task of restoring my chair with Ward, is the novice of the group, having worked in the shop for less than four years. He has removed the filthy green fabric from the club chair and replaced it with a green floral tapestry. He said he likes the work mainly because it keeps him busy. Ray Carrington, who joined the upholstery shop in 1986, is sewing welting for the Queen Anne-style piece. ''I take a whole lot of pride in my work," said Carrington, who also plans to find upholstery work when he leaves prison.

Mike Walker, an industrial instructor and manager of the upholstery shop, said he has heard of three former prison upholsterers using their trade after their release; because the department doesn't monitor prisoners after release, there is no official data on the point. Walker teaches the incarcerated apprentices, sharing the skills he learned when he was an upholsterer. He said he chooses his charges for their smarts, their desire to work with their hands, and the length of their sentences. ''It takes one to three years to become proficient," he explained.

Before bringing in a chair, a customer must send a photo and dimensions to Masscor, which then provides an estimate. My estimate: $226, plus tax. I picked up fabric at a half-price sale for about $10 a yard. (Masscor had told me to bring 5 yards, but I brought 8 because Fabric Place had estimated the job would take 8½. Masscor returned more than 4 yards of unused fabric.)

Masscor customers drop their furniture at a small building on prison grounds, but go nowhere near the prison or its inmates.

MassCor supports itself without state funding, according to Jim Karr, director of the industries program. The goals, he said, are to instill a work ethic in the inmates and to teach them marketable skills. ''I'm trying to get inmates to work," said Karr, ''instead of sitting around their cells watching TV all day." For some inmates, he explained, developing a work ethic is ''a cultural change."

Within MassCor, the upholstery shop is one of the most exclusive, employing only three of more than 1,400 prisoners housed at Norfolk (though the number of upholsterers could rise if the workload increases). Workers are recommended by assignment officers who work with the prisoners, then must interview with the shop manager.

But how good is the upholsterers' work? I took my chair to Kevin McLaughlin of McLaughlin Upholstering in Everett, which was named one of the top upholsterers in the country in 2004 by House & Garden magazine, based on a survey of interior designers. ''I was pleasantly surprised," McLaughlin said. ''I thought it was well done." A better job, in fact, than some pieces he's seen from so-called professionals. ''I've seen work by other shops that's been totally butchered," he said.

McLaughlin believes the inmates are learning the right skills. ''The stripes match up, the buttons match up," McLaughlin said. ''You can see they're paying attention to the detail." The only flaw he noticed was the quality of the materials used inside, notably the cushion (my only complaint too, because it feels cheap and sits a bit awkwardly on the frame). Using a higher-quality cushion and wrapping it in Dacron would improve the quality, McLaughlin said. (Walker conceded that some people prefer Dacron for its ''fluffier look," but said that others ''like the sharp detail.")

McLaughlin said he was particularly impressed with the prisoners' work because upholstery is a dying art, one rarely taught anymore in this country. ''It does require a certain talent," McLaughlin said. ''Whoever did that chair has a talent."

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