The best-kept decorating secret in town is tucked behind barbed wire at the state prison in Florence, Ariz.
For hire: inmates who can reupholster and refinish your furniture — welting, tufting, pleating, skirting and all.
They do recliners, loveseats, ottomans. They speak Queen Anne and Architectural Digest fluently -- there are a few copies lying around the prison that they study, scoping for trends.
Their work is cheap. They never take shortcuts, because they've got oodles of time. And — the men say — they upholster with love.
Here's how it all goes down: Make an appointment to bring your furniture to the Arizona Correctional Industries office in a west Phoenix business park. (Note: not a prison, but the receptionist wears an orange jumpsuit with her smile.)
Next, a customer-service agent (not wearing orange) will whisk you to her cubicle to discuss the project at hand: Pillow-back or camelback? Walnut stain or pine?
Fabric is sold on-site (lots of Southwestern prints), but the ACI folks will tell you it's cheaper to bring your own, and even where to get it.
The sofa goes to prison, you go home, and you'll get a phone call with a quote: say $200 for a wingback armchair, plus $29 to refinish the legs. A sofa is between $400 and $700.
If you agree, the inmates get to work. They are paid between 45 and 80 cents per hour. You are charged for labor and materials, plus a markup that covers overhead, transportation costs and the salaries of the ACI staff. If the price is too high (and it rarely is), they'll send the piece back and you can come pick it up.
Lastly, all the convicts in the upholstery class and work program are sex offenders.
Their workroom is behind a long string of gates in the prison's South Unit. Inside, orange-clad men huddle around sewing machines, loveseats and practice quilts. They're here for 7 1/2 hours each day, talking about what's for lunch and what's on the radio and whether they like the fabric their customer picked. (Usually: no.)
Sometimes, "we keep track of guys (upholstering) on the outside," says professor and instructor Dave Lucas. "A couple have been making a go of it, taking it to heart.
"Maybe," he says, "they won't come back."
The upholstery program starts as a class, then becomes a job. It's a reward for good behavior and requires an interview to get in. The prison staff looks for men with patience and a "good eye," says Lucas, who has worked at the prison for 13 years.
Lucas doesn't know the particulars of the men's criminal escapades, and "I don't want to," he says.
"They're really talented. I treat them as artists and tradesmen. Everybody's due at least one mistake, I think," Lucas says.
In his shop, they do custom work for housewives and professionals. They build children's chairs to donate to libraries. They just refinished all the desks for the Arizona Cardinals' camp in Flagstaff. Also, all the padding for the outfield fence at the new Minnesota Twins stadium is the creation of the inmates at the Florence prison.
The prisoners can do anything you ask: repair the caning on chairs, rescue 100-year-old dining tables and tackle worn-out recliners. They can carve a missing chair leg from scratch. Bring them a picture from the Pottery Barn catalog, and they can bring it to life.
They measure twice and cut once. If they get something wrong, they pull it apart and do it again. It helps teach them patience, the inmates say, and helps them learn to work with others.
"If you've got a little bit of perfectionist in you," Lucas says, "it makes the work even better."
In six months, Lucas can have an inmate good at the basics: the right side of a couch will look like the left.
Give him longer, and said inmate can hand-tie springs, diamond-tuft, even pick out the mistakes in furniture in magazines: crooked stripes and lumpy cushions, or patterns going the wrong way.
"You can pick anything apart," Lucas says. "There's nothing that's perfect."
Designs on a future
In a past life, Johnnie Lee Lewis was a tailor. His father made custom suits, and he did, too. He dabbled in upholstery. He perfected his seams.
Then he went to prison for aggravated, repeated sexual assault. He has been there eight years with another eight to go.
By day, he oversees the other prisoners in the shop. He's the best, Lucas says.
At night, in his bunk, Lewis thinks about God, but also furniture.
"I want to get more into designing things," says Lewis, 54.
His 80 cents an hour goes to design books he studies, and right now he's restructuring the back of a Chippendale chair so that it's actually comfortable. He's a sucker for an antique that needs a little love.
"That's a dying art that no one is dabbling in anymore," Lewis says. His post-prison marketing plan is occupying most of his mind these days: He's wondering about all that gorgeous antique furniture tucked away and how he can persuade customers to "bring these things out and keep memories alive."
All of this, Lewis says, is personal. Making over furniture is "a form of rehabilitating one's mind, too — to see what's inside of him, to bring it out," he says.
While he's bent over an item in the shop, re-creating dentil trim or attaching fabric with old-school tacks instead of staples, Lewis thinks of the invisible customer on the other side. He hopes they look at their furniture and see what's inside of him, too — "the care and the love that we put in."
Sometimes, the customers send thank-you notes.
Ursula Porter might be the inmates' biggest fan: They saved her grandmother's sofa, brought her dining-room chairs back from the dead. They even upholstered some pieces with needlepoint she did herself. She feels it her duty to spread the word about the best-kept upholstery secret in town. No one, she says, asks about what the men have done.
"It doesn't matter," says Porter, 60, a nurse in Yuma. "I'm not their judge, not their jury. I'm simply the person who is trying to give them something to do that will really make them feel better about themselves, and in the end, what they're doing for me is helping me a lot. That's good enough for me."
Inmates' many jobs
Arizona Correctional Industries employs about 1,700 inmates and is a self-funded enterprise that churns out a couple of million dollars in profit for the state each year, according to Bill Branson, ACI's general manager. The work helps inmates pay restitution and save money for after their release. It creates jobs for private citizens, too.
Inmates labor in unexpected spots: 80 prisoners are bused in each day to work on the egg operation at Hickman's Family Farms in Buckeye. More than 350 inmates help with those Willcox-grown Eurofresh tomatoes you're buying at Safeway, Costco and Fry's.
In Arizona, inmates make your license plates, perform maintenance for the town of Douglas, fight summer forest fires and are currently turning out new mattresses for the dorms at Arizona State University.
And if you're an employee of the Department of Corrections, there's a certain female inmate famous for giving a mean haircut.Comment on this story
ACI employs only minimum- and medium-security prisoners: white-collar criminals, those in for drug and drunken-driving crimes, and the men of the upholstery shop.
"The sex offenders are a good workforce," ACI manager Branson says. They're more educated, he says, "don't have a lot of gang and violence" tendencies, and are easy to manage.
"They're very dedicated to their job," he says. "They take it very seriously."
They also did a brilliant job recovering Branson's patio cushions and worked wonders for him on a little thrift-store swivel chair.