The Prison and the Trees
At the Charleston Correctional Facility, inmates discover the dignity of working in the woods.
- By: Susan Hand Shetterly
- Photography by: Melonie Bennett
North of Bangor, one enters Maine’s central upland, a sweep of hills and Kenduskeag River bottomland. At the Charleston town line, the land begins a steady rise. The distant shapes of mountains — Borestone, White Cap, Katahdin — spread themselves the length of the horizon.
Route 15 crests at Bull Hill where two cement columns lift above the trees. They are the abandoned footings of radar towers built for the Charleston Air Force Station. In 1980, the base closed. It re-opened the same year as the Charleston Correctional Facility, a minimum-security, pre-release state prison.
Today the early morning light streams down between the edges of high cumulus clouds as a marsh hawk takes its time banking and gliding above the columns.
The sixty-year-old compound is made up of gently worn one-story wooden buildings painted storm blue. It holds 130 prisoners and has the look of a Rube Goldberg sketch with its steam pipes clad in insulation and wrapped in shiny stainless steel set up on fifteen-foot struts above the ground. They cross over the prison driveway and snake their way along, with rogue puffs of escaping steam, delivering heat to all the buildings. The source of this heat is the barn-like boiler room with its seventy-foot smokestack.
The facility has developed a unique program in which prisoners can sign up to be trained in wood harvesting. They work outside, on state reserve land, and the firewood they cut supplies the prison boiler room furnaces.
“Everybody here is going to work,” says Steve Conner, the vocational trades instructor in charge of the program. “If everything looks good, a prisoner can be assigned to my program. I take twelve students for each session, and they commit themselves to sixteen weeks. There’s nothing easy about this job. You’re out in the weather. In winter it’s cold. In summer it’s hot. At the end of it, they get tested, and they receive a competency certificate. When they leave here, they can take it to an employer. It verifies what they know.”
Conner, who is fifty-three years old, grew up in nearby Sangerville. He has worked at the prison for twenty-three years. After a downsizing in staff and programs, he oversees the work at the prison sawmill and kiln, he delivers firewood to the boiler room, and trucks boards to various sites around the state, but teaching his students out on the land is at the heart of his work.
“Many of these guys have never been in the woods. A few have. You can tell in five minutes whether they’re pulling your chain or not.” He winces and smiles at his word choice. “Either you’ve done this kind of work, or you haven’t,” he adds.
“Even if they don’t use these particular skills after they get released, they have learned other skills without even knowing it — life skills. We’ve had some on the crew that have never been responsible for anything and never had anything. Here they’re responsible for their safety equipment, their chainsaw, for the job they do.
“I’ve seen guys — when I’ve given them a brand new chain saw — as proud of that as they would be of their first-born child. They keep it clean, shiny. They don’t want anyone else using it. You can tell that they haven’t had much. Their lives weren’t good — for whatever reason.”
Conner, red-haired and green-eyed, with a thatch of red moustache, has the high color of someone who has spent most of his life out of doors, and the demeanor of one who has seen just about everything there is to offer of human nature. He projects a watchful, calm presence, a capacity for patience, an appreciation for old-fashioned common sense.
Getting up from the desk in his office, he walks over to the topo map on the wall. With his left hand, he traces the outline of the Bud Leavitt Wildlife Management Area that surrounds the prison on three sides and includes properties within four adjoining towns. A patchwork of approximately 6,530 acres of old farm fields, beaver flowages, alder bogans, and thick forested uplands, it is Public Reserve Land, managed by Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and cut by Conner and his crew.
Two of the four boiler room furnaces were converted from oil to wood some time ago. Rarely are the old backup oil burners turned on. The eight hundred to a thousand cords of firewood that Conner and his men harvest each year — a small fraction of the trees growing on the Management Area — heats the nineteen prison buildings and makes the water hot. A sustainable closed loop, it saves the state approximately $165,000 a year in oil costs, and presents an opportunity to teach and to learn.
Conner points out High-Cut, a rectangular patch on the map where his men are harvesting spruce. “We take a lunch up there, and spend the day in the woods. Each prisoner has his own section. We teach safety and cooperation: how to do the work alone — and, when they need to, how to work together. They are responsible for doing a good job, and they take pride in what they do. For some of them, they never had something tangible they could look at and say, ‘I did it and I did it right.’
“When they come home at night” — by home Conner means, of course, one of the two dormitories at the prison — “they’ve put in a good day’s work. They’re tired. But, truth is, I never know when I come back in the morning who will be here. That’s how fast you can lose somebody. Some of these guys do a wonderful job out in the woods but they may not do so well in the dorms on nights and weekends, and they get transferred.
“Some of them, you wonder how they ever ended up here. Others, you wonder what took them so long.”
Conner climbs into his surplus army truck, slams the door shut, and starts it up. The old behemoth grinds toward High-Cut, past private woodlots and stubble fields of winter silage. The sun shines — bright and cold — as the truck tackles the rutted woods road and enters the Management Area.
He turns in and parks beside the crew truck, with its red and yellow five-gallon coolers of water sitting on the open tailgate. The whine of chainsaws reverberates against the hill. Conner walks over to an old cellar hole. “This is where the first house in the town of Garland stood,” he says. “I would have liked to see it: the farm they had up here, the people doing all kinds of work to stay alive.”
He greets a prisoner who is busily greasing a skidder. They stand together and talk as Conner checks out some maintenance details. When they are done, he continues along the skidder trail, past the trees on either side, and starts up the nearest slope that is heavily forested in a plantation of Norway spruce.
“I can honestly say there isn’t anything I don’t enjoy about my job — although we spend a lot of time on repairs. We’ve got three skidders. Our newest is a 1972. Another is a ’65. The one down there is a ’68. We’ve got a bush hog, a tractor. Nine chain saws. That’s about it, but I like to think we’re teaching lifetime values here with a small staff and some old equipment.”
Today prisoners are not cutting firewood. They are doing what is called a row thinning, felling spruce to be sawed into boards back at the mill, dried in the kiln, and sold. A young prisoner with a chainsaw is working his way uphill, limbing the trees to be harvested, laying down a thick blanket of branches onto which he can drop them as he works his way back down.
Most of these prisoners are in their late twenties and early thirties. The sharp air gives their cheeks color. The sun is direct on their faces. Ready to talk, they turn off their chainsaws as Conner approaches.
At one point, there is a question about a spruce that has been partially cut and is hung in a young maple. Two prisoners, their ear protectors pulled down on their necks, their eye protectors up on their hardhats, stand on either side of the hung tree in their logging chaps, discussing options to get it down. Conner listens and only comments when they are through with their own evaluations and turn to him. Then they go off to find his assistant, Joel Burden, who is managing today’s work, to find out if they can cut the spruce into four-foot lengths instead of eight.
“It’s like anything in life,” Conner says, walking ahead up the hill, “if you know why you’re doing it, it makes sense. If you do it because I tell you to — who cares? When you understand all the parts of cutting a tree, and how a chainsaw works, then it just clicks. And so when you file your saw, for instance, you tend to file it correctly because you know why you’ve got to have that angle, or that depth.”
He heads for an old farm field that his crew mows each year. In one place it is eroded down to ledge where the long-ago farming and clearing wore it thin. Six ancient apple trees stand in the mown brush. Conner says that there are hundreds of apple trees out on this land, and he and his team try to save as many as they can. But he has learned from experience not to release them — and by that he means cut away the surrounding taller trees — all at once, because the sun shocks them.
“We’ve learned to do it a little at a time,” he says.
Mark Caron, the regional biologist for Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, oversees the Management Area, and works with Conner and his program. Caron’s job is habitat management and enhancing the wildlife value of the land. But, he says, the cutting that the correctional facility does, while a forestry program, has a benign effect. A light touch, he calls it. He and Conner plan the harvest, and his assistant biologist marks the trees to be taken.
Back at the prison compound, Conner points out where the land drops off into marsh beyond the buildings. This is where his crew keeps open one-acre cuts in the alder swales for woodcock habitat. From his open window, in spring, he can hear the birds’ mating flights at dusk.
The prisoners in his program also do restitution work, in which they donate their labor to the surrounding communities. In mud season, when it is too wet to get into the woods or down into the alders, Conner takes his crew to clear and chip brush along the roadsides for the local towns.
It is late in the day when he opens the door to the wood harvesting shop and walks in. The big, spare, immaculate room is warm from the steam heat — not hot, but comfortingly warm. Along one wall a line of clothes hooks extends to a back door.
His team is still up at High-Cut. Every hook is empty but one, which holds all a person might need when he goes to cut trees: hard hat, chaps, protective glasses, ear protectors, and, on the floor beneath, steel-toed boots neatly set. If there is a story behind this hook, Conner doesn’t share it.
Instead, he says, “At night they come in and we clean our equipment for the next day. We fill the gas cans. We sweep up. They put their things away so that it’s all easy to get to in the morning.” He snaps out the light and pulls the door closed carefully behind him.
Outside, the sun is poised just above the western trees. The air is colder.
A prisoner might start to feel his life get simpler up at High-Cut. Some of the complications that brought him here might start to fall away. In the woods with its smells of sap and mud, the arc of the sun rising and falling, and wind in the top branches, every day it is the same. Every day it is different. The land feels vast, reaching every which way, even back in time, with those cramped, rough-barked apple trees that someone, long ago, took the care to plant.
- By: Susan Hand Shetterly
- Photography by: Melonie Bennett