Women’s prison inmates craft a new reality upon completing woodworking program

Based in Dover, New Hampshire, Leah Woods is an artist driven by a passion for teaching and woodworking. Attracted to New Hampshire because of its long history of furniture making and design she took a position in 2007 as Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Hampshire, teaching woodwork and furniture design. It was not long before she became involved in her community and joined New Hampshire Furniture Masters, a group of talented furniture makers from Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire and heard about their success and dedication to teaching prison inmates woodworking skills through their Prison Outreach Program. 

Photo credit Leah K Woods
Leah K Woods

For over 20 years the NHFM have been working with male inmates at both the NH State Prison and the Maine State Prison, teaching furniture making and  design to such a high standard it is easy to understand how the act of creating with your hands could lead to powerful changes for these prisoners upon release. With 18 years of teaching experience, Leah knows how beneficial this field can be for empowerment, self-confidence and personal growth and wanted to find a way to expand the POP to women inmates. 

Prison conditions for women were woefully inadequate and gender discrimination regarding space, job skill training and education in women’s prisons did not assist the women’s transition back to society once their sentence was served. A  lengthy class action lawsuit against the State of New Hampshire was finally settled in 1989 prompting changes that would include the construction of a new prison. The State failed in its duty to make this provision but by 2013 funds were eventually appropriated for a 224 bed correctional facility for women which would include a workshop; however, this workshop space was not included in the final construction. 

Still, regarded as a recreational activity, woodworking would now be introduced to the inmates. Armed with the knowledge from the men’s program and its impact on recidivism, Leah was determined to make this work. The administration has been onerous with strict requirements, personal accountability for every screw, chisel and saw used, the need for shadow boards and financial commitments. With momentum building by the fall 2019 everything was set for the program to start at The New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women in Concord and Leah was going to teach classes during a semester-long sabbatical in the spring of 2021.

 

Then Covid shut everything down…

 

Crestfallen by the delay, Leah, along with Lynn Szymanski, and Mary McLaughlin pivoted to online DVDs with woodworking content, interviews with furniture makers and started refocusing on job training. The support was phenomenal and there was an added focus now to help those looking for work placement, apprenticeships and securing jobs once inmates were released from prison. The curriculum Leah and Lynn introduced was also created to nurture artistic development.  There is still some trepidation as there has been no opportunity to talk to the people who matter – the women inmates themselves. 

 

Some of the work created by inmates, photographed by Bill Truslow:

However, Leah  is poised to start  real classes with the women, get other woodworkers involved and record the experiences of the prisoners. She wants to teach them how to make quality items, support and inspire them and to get to the heart of the purpose of this project – to help these women create better lives for themselves. Not a single class has been held in person but this is where Leah will excel.  She visualizes herself on this path, “This is going to work; it will happen” she states emphatically. 

 

Today the project is included in the capital budget for New Hampshire legislature, with money allocated to go towards the building of a workshop studio devoted to woodwork and in addition Leah and her supporters have been fundraising to buy multiple tools raising over $30 000 to date.  Leah hopes to look back on this pandemic delay and appreciate how the time allowed her to examine the program so it would flourish and enable her to document evidence of its positive impact, thankful for the opportunities it has created for the women inmates and their families.

 


Leah is a woodworker and furniture maker creating one of a kind functional pieces and exceptional sculptural work. Check out  https://www.leahkwoods.com/