Angola — Overhead, dozens of wooden trucks, race cars and airplanes hang above workbenches where felons assemble children’s Christmas toys.
A group of 16 inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola works all year in anticipation of the holidays when sheriffs, church groups and shelter workers pick up gifts to donate to children who may not receive presents otherwise.
“I think, by proxy, I wanted to be a father to these kids,” inmate Tom Joyner said. “I didn’t get a chance to be a father to my son.”
In the past year, Toy Shop Inc. made about 6,000 wooden toys, 1,000 pieces of jewelry and a few dozen rocking chairs. It also refurbished more than 300 bicycles to give to children.
“We’re just doing something that we feel is good,” Joyner said. “Every man should do something good for the community in which he lives.”
The program has expanded since it began at Angola in 1993. Shortly before Christmas that year, a local family’s house burned down. Word reached inmates through a prison employee who went to the family’s church.
A group of inmates set out to try to build toys out of pieces of scrap wood for the children in the family. Their first hammer was made out of a shaft from a rooftop heater and a broken sewer rod, Joyner said.
Since then, Toy Shop Inc. has moved into its own work space at the prison. Area governments donate wood, and law enforcement agencies bring abandoned and confiscated bikes. A portion of sales from the Angola Rodeo concessions and the visitors’ commissary helps pay for tools. The money also buys stainless steel to fashion into jewelry to donate to girls. Among the designs this year were earrings, cross necklaces and dragonfly pendants.
“It’s turned out to be a great thing,” said inmate Peter Mulé.
The Toy Shop workers can still recall specific people they’ve helped over the years. One woman went home with 300 toys to share with members of her church who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes the children who visit incarcerated family around the holidays get to leave with a bike.
Inmates can work in the shop after they perform their other jobs around The Farm. Days can start as early as 5 a.m. at Angola, but Mulé says the toy makers sometimes work into the night building wooden push toys and cars.
There’s a sense of camaraderie among the group, and they work together for the good of the project, he said.
“It’s just a pleasure to see people try to help other people,” Mulé said.
With Christmas approaching, the toy makers have even hung their own stockings in the shop and leave one another gifts bought from the commissary — some instant coffee, a candy bar or a packet of cookies.
Because the inmates are so devoted to the program, the Toy Shop is largely self-policed, Warden Burl Cain said. The workspace is packed, after all, with convicts and potentially lethal tools.
“It’s all nooks and crannies. All kinds of evil could occur there,” Cain said.
But the inmates protect the Toy Shop and wouldn’t let anyone jeopardize its work, the warden said.
“That’s Santa’s elves working,” he said of the felons.
“They start to see that it’s better to give than to receive,” Cain added. “They can’t take away the evil things they did. The only way to make it better is to do some good.”
Joyner said inmates do find the work inherently rewarding.
“They don’t make anything out of it except knowing they made children smile at Christmas,” Joyner said. “And they bust their tails off doing it.”
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.