Properly preserving historical artifacts is a time-consuming task. And if there's one thing prison inmates have, it's time. Now they've got the artifacts, too--in what could be the only such project in the country, state prison officials and the Colorado Historical Society have launched an inmate-staffed conservation center to salvage large, historically important pieces such as stagecoaches, cannons and horse-drawn sleighs.

The hope is that the center, located in the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility near Ordway, will rehabilitate inmates as well as artifacts, and that the project will be self-supporting by the end of next year. As idealistic as that sounds, those goals might not be unrealistic. Today, just two months after work was begun on the center's first project, there's a long waiting list of inmates who want to participate in the program (despite the 15-cent-per-hour wage). And despite little advance publicity by the center itself, representatives from numerous museums and historical societies already have expressed interest in having their priceless works redone by Arkansas Valley inmates.

The Ordway center is "a godsend," says Karin Eberhart, curator of collections for the Fort Collins Museum. Few conservation centers are willing to take on large artifacts, and when curators are fortunate enough to locate someone skilled in refurbishing antique automobiles, wagons or train cars, the conservators are apt to be extremely expensive (perhaps even beyond the reach of a small museum) and untrained in the work-documentation methods preferred by museums.

The Colorado Artifacts Conservation Center just might be the answer to all those problems. That's why, Eberhart acknowledges, her museum is "taking a little bit of a risk" by placing one of its most prized possessions--a 120-year-old stagecoach reputed to have been used in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show--into the inexperienced hands of a bunch of convicted felons. But there's another reason she's entrusting them with the coach: "We have confidence in them being able to do the work. Otherwise, we wouldn't send it there."

The partnership is the brainchild of Andy Masich, vice president of the Colorado Historical Society, and John Perko, former director of correctional industries for the state prison system. The idea came about, Masich says, after he approached Perko to see if the prison industries program was capable of constructing exhibits and signs. They could do that and much more, Perko told him. Correctional industries operates a saddle factory, welding shops and print shops. Inmates also break horses for saddle and operate a dairy farm that supplies all the milk for state prisons.

When Masich spoke of the need for conserving large artifacts, Perko decided it was a market niche the prisons could fill.

"We're always looking at ways to provide inmates with work, but without competing unfairly with the private sector," says Tom Crago, who succeeded Perko as director of correctional industries. (Perko was promoted to deputy director for correctional services.) "In this case, there was a real shortage of this capability in the private sector because the work was so expensive, and the funding was intermittent. We felt we could really fill a void and provide a service to museums without bumping into folks out there. How many people are going to be involved in manufacturing or replicating cannon carriages? It's not something where we'd be taking business away."

The Historical Society wrote up a proposal and business prospectus, and the partnership was born. The society provides the technical expertise, practice materials and contacts in the museum world. The state Depart-ment of Corrections provides the space, start-up money and labor.

A large, unused space at the medium-security Arkansas Valley prison was refitted at a cost of roughly $200,000, Crago estimates. (Money to refit the building, as well as some of the training costs, is provided through the state's general fund. The remainder of the money comes from the correctional industries' revolving fund.) If the conservation project does not break even, it will be re-evaluated to determine whether it's valuable enough as a training tool to maintain. If the answer is no, the materials can be used in other prison industries.

Vance Dickenson, an artist/conservator with a dozen years' experience at the California State Railroad Museum and the Kansas State Historical Society, was tapped in late 1992 to become the center's director. He helped oversee construction of the workshop, hired a second conservation specialist and has helped to choose the program's fifteen-inmate crew.

The crew, which includes convicted murderers, spent the first few months cataloguing and sorting historical documents and learning about the restoration work they would be doing. They will get hands-on training to learn welding and such disappearing skills as wheelwrighting and blacksmithing.

They began work two months ago. The first pieces to arrive were Eber-hart's stagecoach and two surreys, three sleighs, a wagon and a brougham carriage belonging to the Historical Society. Dickenson has since been awarded grants to conserve two cannons that presently adorn the state capitol. The group will make cannon carriages for cannons at Bent's Fort and restore a wooden passenger car that belonged to the Colorado & Southern narrow-gauge railway. Eberhart hopes to raise funds to send a 1930 fire truck to Ordway for refurbishing. There's a chance, Dickenson says, that they might get to help restore a wooden trolley car for a group that hopes to restart a trolley line between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs.

In addition, says Masich, "museum people from all over the country are hungry for more information about how it's working. Ohio is interested in conserving some cannons and getting replacement parts, and the U.S. Park Service says they have some things we might do."

Several of the projects are near completion, and Dickenson says he's encouraged by the inmates' enthusiasm for the work. "Just the other day I was talking to one of the inmates and he said, `Just think. When I get out, I could take my kid to town and show him the passenger coach and say I worked on that.' And then he mentioned the Pike's Peak trolley, and he said, `I could take my kid for a ride on that.' That's pretty special. It's a form of hope and pride. There's a lot of real good, positive emotions, good motivating forces here."

Dickenson doesn't kid himself that the experience is going to turn every inmate's life around. "Some of these guys," he says, "are bad to the bone and will never change." And the Department of Corrections doesn't kid itself that it's breeding a new generation of museum curators.

But, notes Crago, the inmates are picking up skills that might be transferable to other types of work on the outside. And there's always a chance that they'll be able to make a decent wage on the inside. Workers at the saddle factory, for example, have begun shipping their work to saddleries around the West and earn $4.25 an hour.

It beats making license plates.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >