The Montana State Prison Hobby Store is a shop in downtown Deer Lodge that sells handcrafted artwork from people incarcerated in prisons across Montana. The store is filled with beadwork, leatherwork, items made with horsehair, paintings, and more.
Bill Moore, the community worker who runs the store, said it offers incarcerated artists an opportunity to be constructive with their time and, importantly, to save money for when they get out.
“Guys are pretty much free to create whatever they want, which is really great because it gives them a good outlet,” Bill said. “It has a lot to do with keeping clear conduct and things like that because if they don’t keep clear conduct, they don’t get to continue to do this. … And it gives them a good opportunity to save money. To get out of here [prison] and get started is pretty rough. You have to have some capital. And hopefully, most of the guys in here are going to get out.”
The incarcerated artists must purchase their own materials and, as Bill mentioned, must have clear conduct to sell their products. They set the prices for their items and receive 75% of the sale. Items range in price from around $20 to hundreds of dollars for items like leather bags and horse bridles. The 25% retained by the prison is reportedly used to keep the store running.
“If they have any obligations like child support or restitution, that comes directly off the top,” Bill said. “The rest of it goes back onto their books so they can invest it back into supplies, they can save it, they can buy groceries with it, music books, that kind of thing. Which helps keeps their sanity a little bit more.”
For Bill, the hobby store is also an opportunity to build community. He has been assigned to the hobby store since October 2019 and works there daily selling items, doing inventory, and talking with customers. When he gets out of prison, Bill said he will likely live in Deer Lodge because he feels accepted by the community.
“Most people have a pretty positive attitude towards me,” Bill said. “I’ve only run into two people in all of this time who weren’t thrilled about this place. And one of the guys still bought something.”
A mechanic by trade, Bill hopes to work on repairing car air conditioners when he gets out. He said working at the hobby store and in other community worker placements has helped him mentally prepare for being out.
“A lot of it is getting in the right mindset,” Bill said. “I am so far away from wanting to get in trouble. I just want to work, and have fun, and go fishing.”
Lee Freeman is one of the store’s frequent customers. Lee delivers trailers across the country and makes it a habit to stop in Deer Lodge when he is passing through Montana to visit with Bill, look at the artwork, and check out the old prison museum in town. Lee believes that the criminal legal system is flawed and likes that some incarcerated people feel supported by the store.
“The justice system is not equal,” Lee said. “You have people with money who have better lawyers. You have people with lawyers who don’t do nothing for you. There’s the evidence they have that may or may not point to the right person. You can get thrown in for something you didn’t do.”
Lee has bought a handful of items during his visits, including braided keychains.
Critiques of the hobby store that the Montana Innocence Project has heard from criminal legal reform advocates, which include formerly incarcerated people, are mainly about how incarcerated artists are not allowed to sell elsewhere. Prior to this policy, some would mail their art to friends and family who would sell the items themselves or deliver the items to stores that would sell them. This avenue would allow incarcerated artists to potentially make a larger profit from their items than the 75% they make through the hobby store. It should be noted that incarcerated artists may still mail items to friends and family but not for them to sell.
Another common critique is about how the prison uses the hobby store for discipline. We learned that the prison confiscates hobby supplies from incarcerated people who violate prison rules–supplies incarcerated people purchased with their own money. We also learned that when caught selling items through friends or family on the outside that the prison has prevented communication between the incarcerated person and that friend or family member.
As is the case with many programs and jobs in carceral settings, the Montana State Prison Hobby Store has its problems. We do not agree with some of the exploitative practices, but we are happy to know that incarcerated people like Bill benefit from the opportunity to be in the community and that others get to use artwork as a mental escape from prison.
Our current client Bernard Pease is one of those people. He was wrongfully convicted in 1984. The beginning of his wrongful incarceration coincided with a trend in tough-on-crime and truth-in-sentencing laws that overcrowded prisons. Incarcerated people were often moved around to different facilities, including ones out of state. As a result of switching prisons regularly, Bernard turned to art not only as a pass time but as a source of income when he was not at a facility long enough to get a job. He has multiple pieces in the hobby store currently, from dream catchers with beaded hummingbirds to necklace and earring sets.
The Montana State Prison Hobby Store is located at 105 Main Street in Deer Lodge, Montana. They are open every day from 8:30 – 3 p.m.