POLK CITY, Fla. — In our cultural mythology, Christmas toys are constructed by naive, selfless creatures devoid of worldliness.
The men who create the toys received each Christmas season by many children in Polk County, Florida, are far from being unblemished elves.
Those toiling on a recent afternoon in a workshop at Polk Correctional Institution are there because they have committed serious offenses: trafficking in cocaine, robbery with a weapon, grand theft with a firearm, burglary of a dwelling or structure, and even aggressive stalking.
But the same hands that contributed to those transgressions are now engaged in concentrated and gentle activity aimed not at benefiting themselves but imparting joy to others. As participants in the Toys for Tots program at PCI, the men spend their weekdays crafting items that evoke an earlier era of handmade, solid toys meant to be passed from one sibling to another.
The men wearing dull blue uniforms with stripes on their pants build such items as dollhouses, miniature forts, jewelry boxes, rolling animals, sliding puzzle games, airplanes, lawnmowers, tricycles, strollers, bulldozers, train sets, helicopters and all manner of cars.
Each November, the prison staff delivers hundreds of inmate-built items to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program of Polk County. That organization then distributes the toys in time for Christmas to impoverished families in the county.
“It’s a great enjoyment, especially to give back to kids or needy families,” said inmate Scott Conwell, who has been in prison since 2002 and at Polk Correctional since 2016. “To be able to have the kids walk away with something that they’re going to play with and they’re going to enjoy — that’s very satisfying. That’s the reason I love to do this.”
He volunteered to help the program but allegedly took toys at night, police say.
Florida’s Department of Corrections, which oversees about 96,000 inmates at 145 facilities, offers a variety of programs for inmates. Polk Correctional Institution, which holds 1,250 male inmates, provides options in the categories of betterment, academic, vocational, substance abuse, prison industries and chaplaincy and volunteer programs. The prison also offers what it calls “skills assessment and enhancement” services, such as counseling and resume building.
PCI, a prison with mixed custody levels, has allowed carefully screened inmates to work in the Toys for Tots program since 2000. Inmates in the program are not necessarily under minimum custody status, but classification officers seek those with little or no discipline history and no history of violence or illegal activity in prison, according to Department of Corrections guidelines.
Most inmates at Polk Correctional are within three years of completing their sentences and will be released in Florida’s Polk, Hillsborough or Pinellas counties, the areas where they lived before their arrests, Warden John DeBell said.
Toys for Tots is perhaps the most selective program Polk Correctional offers, DeBell said. The prison sets a quota of roughly 15 participants, he said, and any inmate admitted must be trusted around power equipment and materials that could be fashioned into weapons.
“Looking at the tools that are in there, you’ve got to vet the guys that are going in there for someone who’s going to be working with table saws and band saws and some of the other stuff that you might not ordinarily think would be on the inside fence of a prison,” DeBell said. “The security in there has got to be pretty good. The tool accountability in there’s got be spot on.”
Some men are referred to the Toys for Tots program by fellow inmates, while others are assigned by the prison’s classification office. Inmate Douglas Drape, 56, said it is the most desirable option at Polk Correctional.
“First off, it’s something that gets us out of the dorms,” he said. “It gets us in here, where we can work with our hands, and makes us feel like we’re doing something beneficial, No. 1, for the kids, but it’s also a way to gain skills we can use when we get out on the street.”
The Toys for Tots initiative occupies a spacious workshop in the programs building on the prison’s fenced grounds. The high-ceilinged main work area contains several long work benches equipped with electric saws, drill presses and sanders. Bulging stacks of lumber sit in neat stacks throughout the room.
The initiative depends entirely on donated materials and supplies.
The inmates spend about six hours a day, Monday through Friday, in the workshop, supervised by a female correctional officer (who asked not to be named). The building contains a smaller room where inmates do the finishing work, including the detailed painting on train engines and other toys.
The former Marine used a unit travel card to rack up thousands in unauthorized charges.
Drape has been incarcerated since 2007 and is due for release next March. He said he succeeded his former roommate as tool supervisor in the Toys for Tots program.
In recent weeks, Drape has spent much of his time building train sets.
“The trains have been a lot of fun, but they’ve also been a lot of work because there are seven cars to a train,” he said. “I built five train sets, so that’s 35 different cars. It’s kind of taken me a little bit of time, plus all the painting.”
Drape said he does the basic painting, and the trains then to go to the artists for the finishing work, such as a Christmas tableaux on the engine depicting Santa Claus riding a snowmobile.
Drape said he had no experience with woodworking before joining the program. After he’s released, he envisions making toys and other items that he can sell at flea markets.
Conwell, 52, said he worked on the Toys for Tots program at Hardee Correctional Institution in Bowling Green before being transferred to PCI. He is due for release in 2022.
Conwell said he worked as a welder before entering prison.
“My father was a carpenter, so I learned to work wood with him, and then I always built model airplanes and cars,” Conwell said, standing with protective goggles pushed up on his head. “This is something I really want to do when I get out. I’m getting too old to weld any more, but the toys, the jewelry boxes, the dollhouses, it’s something I can do on the street.”
Conwell showed examples of items he has made, including a model of the vehicle driven by Barney Rubble on “The Flintstones,” a car with a log for a chassis and stone wheels. He also constructed a variety of games, including peg games like those supplied at Cracker Barrel and sliding number and letter games.
Conwell said he and the other inmates build the toys to be durable. He said they test the wooden tricycles he makes to ensure they can withstand the weight of an adult.
Kenny Fortner, 53, has been in prison for most of the past 27 years. He arrived at PCI last year and is scheduled for release in 2022.
Fortner said he has held virtually every possible job in the prison system, including maintenance, construction, food service and law clerking.
"This by far ranks as the most fulfilling, and you're around better-behaved people in here because you can't have idiots around the machines," he said in a slow drawl. "It's easy in here to make shanks and stuff like that. You can't have people in here doing that stuff. ... You really want well-behaved kinds of individuals in here."
Fortner said he had experience in construction work on the outside. He joked that he was admitted to the Toys for Tots program after confirming he could run a power saw without cutting his fingers off.
“Not only is it doing something for the kids, but, I mean, this is like coming to Hobbycraft every day,” Fortner said, “and it keeps you away from the compound, which — I don’t know whether you know it or not, but a lot of stuff goes on at the compound. This is kind of a refuge from that.”
Florida Department of Corrections spokesman Rob Klepper said that monthly reports show the levels of violence, drug use and gang activity at Polk Correctional are among the lowest of any state facility.
Fortner said he had spent the past eight months building dollhouses. Having reached the quota for that item, he had shifted to making sets of wooden building blocks, which he said reminded him of the toys that fueled his imagination when he was a boy.
Though he’ll never meet the children who receive the items, Fortner said he takes a perfectionist approach toward making them.
“Every time I do it, I notice a flaw and think, ‘I don’t want a kid to have that,’ so I’ll correct it or redo it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want a kid to have something that ain’t perfect. I’m kind of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) like that. They (other inmates) get on me all the time, like, ‘Man, come on, leave it alone.’ ‘No, I’ve got to sand it’.”
With power tools and large fans running, the main workshop can be a noisy place. By contrast, the finishing room is hushed and cramped. On the recent afternoon, four inmates sat at desks topped by shelves well stocked with small bins of paint.
Silas Daniel, 47, sat at one of the desks, using a small brush to paint the body of a wooden rabbit. Daniel, on his fifth stretch in prison, is scheduled for release next March.
DeBell said the Toys for Tots program, like all those available at the prison, are intended to improve behavior and better prepare the inmates to fit into law-abiding society after they are released.
“Incentivized programs like that, where they’re doing good stuff and where they actually see the product made and it benefits somebody, those guys have a significantly reduced amount of disciplinary infractions and referral,” DeBell said. “That’s why the waiting list to get in there is so long.”
Dave Waller, coordinator for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program of Polk County, said the nonprofit receives the items from the prison each fall and distributes them to families a week or two before Christmas.
Waller, who is retired from law enforcement, said he leaves it up to the inmates and their supervisors to decide what items to make. He said the toys are assembled with skill.
“Just fantastic workmanship with virtually no screws or nails,” he said. “It is all hand-doweled, and it’s just amazing work. While personally we don’t see the children getting toys on Christmas, we do get feedback from families about the toys and the impression it made on the child, that it was a quality, homemade toy.”
Waller said he visited Polk Correctional two years ago and spent time watching inmates creating toys in the workshop.
“It’s a very impressive operation,” he said. “It’s good to talk to the inmates and to hear their stories about how it makes them feel about trying to give back and also to potentially learn a trade.”
The inmates interviewed all said they expect to carry on the idea of making things for others after they are released. Fortner said he has a 20-year-old son who was born two months after the trial that yielded his prison sentence, and he said they have been communicating recently.
Fortner said he liked the notion of making toys for grandchildren who are not yet born.
Conwell said he is a father of three and has five grandchildren.
“They’re going to get toys when I get out,” he said.