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Working It Out
Christina Cooke

“Hey, Boss,” Tobey Grip calls from under the husk of the 1970 Mustang in the body shop. Tobey arrived at the Bolduc Correctional Facility, Maine’s prison farm, a year ago, after spending over three years in higher-security prisons around the state. He has already completed the six-month Auto Body program, but has stayed on to help his instructor, Brad Davis, with the next set of students. Working in the shop, he says, helps him endure the time that separates him from home. It takes his mind off of what’s happening without him in the outside world.      

Brad crosses the garage and peers under the car, where Tobey lies on the creeper, a drive shaft cradled in his left elbow. It’s not fitting into place. Once the two agree that the part is too long, Tobey’s legs appear from under the front end, then his chest, and last, his head. He is dressed in camel-colored leather boots, navy pants, and a gray T-shirt atop a white long-sleeved shirt. He wears oval-shaped wire-rimmed glasses and spikes his short brown hair. Tobey is 28 years old and has a young, clean-shaven face with prominent cheekbones. His square jaw often works a stick of gum, and his serious, focused expression softens into a boyish smile when he talks about his family. Around the body shop, Tobey moves with purpose, striding from one side to the other to find a tool or consult the boss. Tobey loves to work and always has. He left high school early to install windshields and storefronts for Oaks and Parkhurst Glass Company, a job to which he says he’ll return after his release. At Bolduc, he pursued the Auto Body program with such determination that the administration allowed him to skip the waiting list and enter three weeks after his arrival.  

Dusty cords snake across the concrete floor of the body shop, connecting power tools to the outlets along the back wall.  As they work, the five prisoners in the class wear orange foamy earplugs to protect their eardrums from the reverberating racket of the machinery. On the side of the garage opposite Tobey, a student grates the rust off the carcass of a ’68 Mustang that’s suspended underbelly-up by a rotisserie that rotates the car like a chicken on a spit. In addition to maintaining the Department of Corrections’ fleet and the personal vehicles of those associated with the system—like the 1968 Mustang that’s in the shop now—the class is restoring the 1970 Mustang to show-car quality as part of the Cars Behind Bars program developed by Deputy Warden Barlow. Bolduc found the car in Uncle Henry’s Weekly Swap or Sell it Guide, purchased it for not much, and plans to sell it for between $25,000 and $30,000 once the Auto Body class finishes the restoration. 

At the workbench, Tobey props the wall tubing of the ill-fitting drive shaft against the back of a yellow-bristled scrub brush. He lowers a clear plastic shield over his face and pulls on leather gloves. While his classmate, Moe, steadies the shaft, Tobey runs a sander over the end piece to shorten it. Forked yellow sparks arc through the air, bouncing off his sweatshirt and face shield, but Tobey neither flinches nor backs away. A high-pitched grinding sound arises, and the space smells of burning.   

Escaping this prison would be as easy as crossing the front lawn, stepping off the property, and hitching a ride to Moody’s Diner down the road for a slice of four-berry pie. The only fences at the Bolduc Correctional Facility keep the cows in their pasture and the porcupines out of the apple orchard. But Deputy Warden Al Barlow can count the number of escapes over the last 10 years on his left hand. The Maine State Prison, which looms across the street behind a chaos of chain-links and razor wire, reminds Bolduc inmates where they’ve been and where they’ll end up again if they’re not careful. They’re all less than five years from release and want to make it out, so they decide to stick around—and work hard while they’re at it.

Everybody at the facility has a job, whether cultivating crops on the farm, punching numbers into license plates, mopping the hallways, or cleaning the bathrooms. Some, like Tobey, choose to participate in one of the prison’s six vocational trades programs—Auto Body Repair, Auto Mechanics, Building Trades, Culinary Arts, Electrical Trades, or Plumbing and Heating. Tobey is determined to take advantage of the opportunities at Bolduc, so that when his time is up and he heads out the front door with $50 and a box of his personal items, he’ll have prospects for the future. 

Though Bolduc is tamer and offers more programs than the ‘supermax’ where he was before, it is still a prison. You cross the front lawn, use the bathroom, attend class, eat lunch, and the guards are watching. They informally count you every hour on the hour; they formally count you six times a day. All prisoners will be in their assigned rooms for formal counts and remain there until the officer conducting the count releases them. Neither your body nor your time is yours. You, your room, and your property are subject to search by staff at any time. Searches may be conducted with or without the prisoner present. The rules dictate everything you do and everywhere you go. Prisoners may sit at, but not on, picnic tables at appropriate times, but may not “hang out” outside the housing units or Admin. Building. Sunbathing is allowed only after work hours and on weekends/holidays on the grass directly behind the Admin. Building. Do not go near or feed the cows.

Tobey is 18 months away from home. He’s serving a six-year sentence for nearly beating his uncle to death. Out of respect for the people involved, Tobey is reluctant to speak of his reasons. He becomes subdued when he talks about the incident. “A few people know,” he says, “and that’s about it. I really don’t talk much about it.”His words come slowly, and silence creeps between his sentences and sits. He crinkles his brow and looks down at his hands.

Tobey’s uncle—his father’s foster brother—sexually abused a member of his family, and when Tobey found out, he confronted his uncle. “I went over there, got in a fight with him, and probably fought a little longer than I should have,” he recalls. “But it just happened so fast, and you get so mad, and the next thing you know, emotion just takes over, and before you know it, you’ve gone too far.” 

Because the authorities didn’t know whether his uncle would live or die—and whether to try Tobey for assault or murder—Tobey did not go on trial for about a year after the assault. After seven months, the uncle finally emerged from his coma. Tobey says that if he were in the situation again, he would most likely do the same thing. His uncle had molested somebody before, gone to jail, gotten out, and had done it again. “Somehow, you’ve got to break that chain,” says Tobey. “The system can’t do it, and there was no other way, and that was the only way I knew how to do it,” he continues. “I myself don’t feel like I did anything wrong, and nobody in my family feels like I did anything wrong. It was something that had to be done, unfortunately.” Tobey is glad to do the time, knowing that he has protected others from his uncle’s perversion. “I feel that this time away is minor compared to saving somebody else and helpin’ somebody else out.  Time is nothing.  I could be here 20 years, and it’d still all be worth it.”

Though prison has not affected Tobey’s sense of justice, it has changed his character in other ways. Working in the Auto Body shop, Tobey says, has boosted his self-confidence. It has given him pride in his work and taught him patience. Since he has taken on the role of shop assistant, he feels more comfortable interacting with others. Tobey has become more introspective as well. “I’ve learned a lot about my feelings, and I think a lot more about things than I did before,” he says. “I definitely think about life a lot more, because a lot of stuff out there you take for granted.”

On a Friday in late October, the sun has begun to descend in the gray sky across the street from the cluster of Bolduc buildings, highlighting the nubs of grass in the meadow. It casts a glow on the front porch of the Administration Building, leaving the right wing in shadow. The last of the vans have pulled in and unloaded prisoners from their jobs out in the community, and the prisoners in the vocational classes have returned to their units to get ready for evening chow.

Tobey and his father meet in the front walkway. Joseph Grip is serving a two-year sentence for a probation violation and has been at Bolduc with his son for the last six months. He’s been in twice before for cultivating marijuana, and during his last probation, he was caught with it again. Father and son quietly acknowledge each other, and begin a slow lap, conversing in low voices.

Though they live in separate units, Tobey and his father see each other almost every day. Most of Joseph Grip’s face hides behind a gray and white beard, save his deep-set eyes, quiet and mischievous. He wears a navy knit hat, pushed so high on his forehead that the empty part flaps over in back. Many members of the Grip family—Tobey’s father and several of Tobey’s 10 siblings—have ended up in prison. But Tobey always defied his family’s reputation. “I was the one that had never been in trouble.  I was the one that showed ’em you can be good.  We’re not bad,” he says. “The most I’d ever had was a speeding ticket.” Tobey and his father circle the building, circle the building, and return to their separate units.

In the few-steps-wide bedroom that he shares with three other men, Tobey opens the doors of his locker and pulls a photo album from a shelf. He turns to snapshots of a beaming brown-haired boy, his five-year-old son Matthew, born to his girlfriend a month after he landed in prison. Matthew runs, jumps, dances across the photographs, dresses like a lion for Halloween, splashes during his swimming lessons. “He’s my little pride and joy, my little buddy,” says Tobey, grinning. “He’s so full of life, it’s crazy.”

Tobey says that he and Linda haven’t yet explained the concept of prison to their son; they’re waiting until Tobey’s out and settled at home.  Meanwhile, Matthew thinks that his father is at work.  “Last night, he was like, ‘How much longer are you going to work—a million-trillion hours?’” says Tobey.  “He don’t understand why I can’t be at home when he wants me to be.  He’s like, ‘I’m so ready for you to get a new job.’” When Tobey was in a prison bounded by razor wire, Linda did not bring Matthew to visit, but since he has been at Bolduc, they have come almost every weekend. Tobey flips to pictures of his family playing golf with miniature clubs on Bolduc’s front lawn last summer.

At the end of this past September, Tobey and Linda married among the paperbacks in the Bolduc library. His parents, her mother, their son, a few flowers, 20 minutes. Tobey points to a picture of himself and Matthew standing side-by-side after the ceremony. “He had to have his hair spiked up, and we had to have identically matching outfits,” remembers Tobey. “Our sweaters were a little different,” he adds, “and he wasn’t happy about that. He wasn’t happy at all.” Matthew started feeling better about the situation after Tobey pointed out that he could use his extra pocket to hold the wedding rings.

Tobey flips through pages of pictures taken during his 24-hour honeymoon furlough, which began immediately after he and Linda said their ‘I do’s.’ In one shot, he and Linda cut the cake in the kitchen of his mother’s house. In the next, he pretends to ax his mother-in-law with the cake knife, and she pretends to look scared. “Classic mother-in-law picture,” he laughs. During furloughs, Tobey stays awake for every hour, every minute. “She fell asleep,” he remembers of Linda. “I stayed awake and pretty much just held her and looked at her, you know. It was nice to have her fall asleep in my arms. She looked so peaceful, like a little angel lyin’ there sleepin’, and it was wonderful.”

Soon enough, though, Tobey returned to his prison bedroom—to his lower bunk, boron-soaked foam mattress, and clear plastic alarm clock that exposes its wires and anything hidden inside. He returned to the tidy stacks in his metal locker and his plastic shower sandals arranged neatly on the linoleum tiles beneath his bed. He returned to his world within the world, where rules and routines keep life constant. “I’m here, in one spot. Everything’s the same,” he ruminates. “Out there, everything’s all revolving. There’s constant change. And when you go back, you’re just in awe.”

Stars pierce the black sky above Bolduc, but inside the bright cedar-scented Craftroom, inmates hammer, saw, sand, and paint their way through what might otherwise be a dull, endless evening. Among the workbenches, Miss Maine model boats, log cabin bird feeders, wooden dogs on wheels with strings, cedar hangers, and sailor’s knots lie in various stages of completion. Tobey dials his combination into the padlock on locker #30. He swings wide the wooden door beneath his space at the workbench and pulls out one of his scallop-shaped boxes, which matches the size of his outspread palm. Tobey sells his finished boxes for $12 each in the Maine State Prison Showroom in the nearby town of Thomaston. He can earn up to $10,000 in a year, which he’ll use to support himself after his release.

Box in hand, Tobey descends the stairs into the Saw Room, where prisoners operate the mechanical saws mounted around the perimeter of the room—where blades whine and sawdust carpets the floor. With intense concentration and both hands, Tobey guides his box across the blade of the band saw, separating a lid from the body. A blue-uniformed second-shift officer peers through the Saw Room door, checks ‘Tobey Grip’ from his list, and disappears to complete informal count. Blow off Machines after use, say the signs. Pick up wood. Thanks.

As the sun rises over the ocean, sets over the pasture, and rises once again, and as the snow falls, melts, and falls once more, Tobey moves closer to what’s out there beyond the Bolduc Correctional Facility, beyond Cushing Road, and beyond Warren, Maine. He moves closer to the house he knows, the family he loves, and time all his own. He can’t wait to move in with his wife, teach his son to ice skate on frozen ponds near the house, and eat hot ham and cheese sandwiches whenever he wants. Until then, he stays put in prison. He studies dent repair and welding, builds scallop boxes and wooden ships, and avoids breaking the rules and being sent back to the supermax.

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