This shop has a captive audience

It’s not easy to shop at my favorite store. It has no website, and takes no credit cards. It’s also almost 900 miles away – in Deer Lodge, Montana, which just happens to be home to the Montana State Prison.

And that’s where the contents of this store come from. The entire inventory of the Montana State Prison Hobby Store consists of things made by inmates – everything from beaded earrings to crocheted crosses to toy cars constructed from pop cans to elaborate horsehair items ranging from ponytail holders to intricate bridles, a particular speciality of this prison (the more involved horsehair pieces are the work of inmates with time to spare – maybe a lifetime).

Since I discovered this store on a road trip a few years ago, I’ve become a particular fan of the “paper art” items, boxes constructed from pieces of paper that evoke the tramp art of the Depression. I try to pick up an item every summer, but hours are erratic -- and one year the store was closed altogether, because the inmate who ran the place had lost his privileges because of some contraband issue. Cigarettes, I think.

This year, though, I timed the trip just right, and managed to pick up this nest of paper containers created by Douglas Thee (prisoner number 4276C). I would have bought more, but for two insurmountable problems – not enough cash, and the fact that the prison is no longer allowing inmates to do “paper art,” turning bits of trash to treasure. I’m not sure why, but it does look like the lid of one of my boxes contains the rough outline of an escape plan. – Patricia Calhoun

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