DEER LODGE - A small sign that reads "inmate craft store" lets drivers know that this is no ordinary hobby outlet or art gallery.
Located across from the old Montana State Prison, the Montana State Prison Hobby Store displays artwork created by inmates behind barred walls, using limited tools and materials because of safety restrictions. Yet, the outcome is unique, colorful and beautifully handcrafted art.
"The ones who do hobby care about it deeply," said Linda Moodry, public information officer for the Montana State Prison. "A hobby is a privilege."
The small shop is full of belts, beaded Moccasins, horsehair key fobs and bridals, portraits and paper jewelry boxes.
For more than 30 years, inmates have created and sold their art to the general public. In the beginning, their art was sold from behind an information counter at the Old Prison. When the prison moved to its new location in 1977, the state opened a gift store across the street from the old location. Over the years, the pieces multiplied. Wall space at the hobby store was at a premium, said Sharon Sager, business specialist for Montana Correctional Enterprises.
Scott Abe, 45, has been an inmate at the prison for almost 15 years. When he was transferred to the jail in Glendive in 1999, artwork that he had sent to the store two years earlier was returned to him in the same bag he sent it there in, evidence to Abe that it was never displayed.
"It was hard to display anything," Sager said.
A shortage of space for displaying all the artwork is no longer a problem with the completion of the recent renovation project in June. Now, the Montana State Prison Hobby Store is three times the size, although, still relatively compact.
During the summer, the shop is packed with summer tourists, sometimes upward of 40 a day.
On this particular Thursday, Terry Jarvis browses the racks of key fobs in search of a gift. It's not the Missoula woman's first time in the store.
"I want to support them," she said. "Everybody deserves a second chance. Plus, it's amazing for the prices. It's too bad it's not packed with people."
Abe, who works has worked at the hobby store for several months, shows a stack of custom orders from all over the country. Montana State Prison inmates are known for their horsehair artwork, Sager said. Retail stores all over the world request shipments of horsehair bridles, hat bands and belts.
Several years ago, Moodry knew of an inmate with a special talent for sketching and commissioned him to draw a picture of her two children from a photo.
A quarter of the proceeds from each sale goes to the store to pay for an employee's salary, the rent and utility bills. The rest goes to the inmate, unless the prisoner owes restitution, child support or victim support and then they receive a smaller percentage.
Prisoners set the price of their own artwork, which teaches them a thing or two about the economy outside the prison walls, Moodry said. If their art doesn't sell after a year, it's returned to the inmate to revaluate their price.
Some of the belts cost several hundred dollars, but 80 to 100 hours of work goes into to making one, said Abe, who has many items on display in the store. Abe, like many of the inmates, finds time to work on his projects in between his regular job and other prison responsibilities. Inmates buy their own materials. Right now, he said, a pound of horse hair costs $84. Others get creative using the aluminum foil from the inside of candy bars and prink carbon copy paper to create amazing things.
Abe would guess about 700 inmates from Glendive, Great Falls, Deer Lodge, Shelby and the Montana Women's Prison in Billings contribute to the store's inventory.
Occasionally there are classes, but mostly inmates rely on their cellmates to teach them how to hitch horsehair. At the same time, inmates take their hobbies seriously, hiding patterns and designs from other prisoners. Hobbies are a privilege that the inmates enjoy as long as they have good behavior. One infraction and an inmate could lose all of their materials, which equates into lost money, so the hobbies actually keep inmates on the straight and narrow, Abe said.
"Can you imagine if they didn't allow hobby in the prison?" he said. "People would still get creative."
The savings after four years from the sales of merchandise is what paid for the recent expansion, Sager said. No taxpayer dollars were used and inmates provided the construction labor. The wood used for the project came from the prison's lumber mill and the many black horseshoes that display the artwork came from the prison's work ranch. The horse bridles are hung on an old jail cell door.
The hobby store is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. six days a week - closed Sundays - until April when the shop is open seven days a week through the summer.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at Chelsi.moy @missoulian.com.