You can buy death row inmate's art at the San Quentin gift shop

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When I was growing up, on the way to my aunt and uncle’s place, we used to make a stop at the Maine State Prison showroom, located in Thomaston. It’s got a variety of woodworking items, along with other arts and crafts, made by the prisoners. The showroom’s location is next to where the old Maine State Prison–the inspiration for Stephen King’s Shawshank Prison–used to stand. It’s a big open field now, but they’ve preserved some sections of the walls, along with a small inmate graveyard. Definitely worth the trip if you’re ever on the downeast Maine coast.

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Angola State Prison holds their combination rodeo/craft fair pretty regularly. There is a ton of stuff for sale at the craft show, and you can even talk with the artisans about their work. Some are literally in cages however. It’s an insane experience. The rodeo is borderline abuse too. I expect it will eventually get shut down after a few exposes.

Who does the profit go to?


About 15 years or so ago, I was driving down Baja with a girlfriend, and we stopped in Mulegé, an isolated town on the Cortez coast, halfway down the peninsula, that is the site of an old disused prison, open for tours now. The prisoners, we were told, used to be allowed to wander the town, during the day, since the place was so far removed, by desert, from the rest of civilization, no one could be expected to escape and survive.

One of a local community of RV-dwelling seasonal inhabitants told us we could visit the still active state pen, a few miles north, where the prisoners make nice handcrafts to sell. We drove up. The guards seemed a bit puzzled by our arrival, but granted us entry. We were led down a fenced-in walkway to a fenced-in enclosure in the middle of the prison courtyard, while an announcement went out over the loudspeaker. Then, dozens of inmates ran out from the surrounding building and clustered around the fence in front of us, shouting for our attention, and waving little tchotchkes they’d carved from abalone shells.

There was not much on display that either of us wanted, and it sure didn’t feel good having apparently surprised them like this, and then not making any purchases. We bought a couple nicely polished shells that weren’t especially embellished. My girlfriend had a bit of conversation with one inmate who spoke English, and learned some about what had gotten him in there. And then, to the disappointment of many incarcerated diligent shell carvers, we retreated.

Mulegé is a fine place to while away some lazy days. I’m not sure I’d recommend the nearby state pen, but that was my experience. Do with it what you will!

Related: I’m not sure if it’s been Boing’d before (prob’ly has), but there’s a really good podcast about life in San Quentin, Ear Hustle, for which the co-host just had his sentence commuted by the governor! Happiest holiday podcast conclusion ever!

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Per the sign photographed in the post, 82% goes to the inmates.

So the prison takes an 18% cut… that’s lower than Apple’s 33% cut of anything sold through their app store, for instance. Maybe that’s why they’re having trouble keeping the gift shop doors open…


…and from them it goes back to the prison.

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Well, yeah… and since they’re on death row they don’t even have the option of saving it until they get out (if that’s even an option open to prisoners who will eventually get out?)

I go by San Quentin on my bike every so often. I don’t think I could buy something at that gift shop with a clean conscience.

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I agree with the sentiment, but there’s an even broader issue.

Quite a bit of the US economy is based on enslaved labor.

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