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“MAINE runs on tourists. In the basement of The Showroom, which is approximately 11 miles from the prison in Warren, I’m surrounded by rows of shelved inventory: toy boats with a gleam, a gumball machine shaped like a shocked clown, boxes of lobster trap keychains painted neon pink. The state’s motto, “Vacationland,” is written on picture frames. “The earnestness of the work shines through and the prices can’t be beat,” Travel + Leisure magazine wrote about The Showroom in a January 2015 guide to vacationing in Maine. On what the vacationer should purchase, they decide that the ultimate souvenir is a T-shirt that reads: Stolen from the Maine State Prison.

On Yelp, a customer from The Showroom named Alison rates the place five out of five stars. Other customers seem to agree: the prices are great. Vacationers want to find prices lower than anywhere else; they want a bargain that’s also a little taste of Maine. And it’s a program, they’re told, that “wants to put people back to work.” Americans want to vacation, but most of all they want to pretend to consume benevolently.Although I was told that the day-to-day work for MDOC Industries is determined by The Showroom’s needs, almost every prisoner I visit in the woodshop during April and November 2016 worked on a project commissioned by the state, city, county, or a private business or individual. One customer sent in photographs of their boat to have the prisoners make models; they would be given away as gifts. A stack of large signs to be hung in a public park were being sanded and finished. Buoy-shaped trophies were drying after being primed. In a few weeks, they would be bestowed upon winners at a race.
Maine Governor Paul LePage’s desk was being turned over for its second re-finishing. In the bottom of its drawer, all of the governors before him had left their signatures in pen and Sharpie.

On a few occasions I was told that The Showroom brings in around one million annually—a common figure often quoted in local papers—but that isn’t accurate. For the fiscal year of 2015, The Showroom generated $2,015,178, which is $24,569 more than 2014 profits, which were $78,345 more than 2013 profits. Many of the salaries for staff working within MDOC Industries come directly from The Showroom’s profits. And yet, because of low wages and the nature of the work, the prison often sees reductions to its official staff, which means there are many days and weeks when the shop is closed or significantly fewer prisoners are put to work.”

– Chelsea Hogue, “Hidden Costs,” The New Inquiry. August 28, 2017.

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