From behind bars, working for the community

Sentinel and Enterprise
By Katina Caraganis

Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis praised the work of inmates from the Worcester House of Corrections Tuesday for helping to revamp buildings in communities across North Central Massachusetts.

Evangelidis met with five inmates as they did work on the No. 6 Schoolhouse. The building, owned by the city but rented out by the Leominster Historical Society, needed a paint job and new clapboards.

“This is such an important project for these inmates. It gives them all a sense of responsibility and pride in what they’re doing,” Evangelidis said as he toured the schoolhouse on Pleasant Street.

In his 17 months as sheriff, the number of inmates participating in the program has doubled to more than 30, and the sheriff’s office has been able to fund more than $2 million in projects in that same time.

“I had one inmate who’s involved in this initiative say that at 18 years old, he’s never had a job in his whole life. But because of this program, it gave him a deeper understanding of what it meant to hold a job,” Evangelidis said. “He said that it gave him the work ethic he needed to pursue a job when he was released.”

Inmates wishing to be a part of the program must go through a lengthy screening process. Additionally, they must not be a violent offender or sex offender, he said. Between four and six inmates are assigned to crews, which work year-round at various projects.

To have a project considered, the organization must be a nonprofit, he said, and representatives must send him a letter addressing their needs. All of the supplies are bought by the nonprofit, which also provides lunch for the inmates daily.

“Really, many of these inmates are thanking me for allowing them to be a part of this service. They’re really the ones getting the most out of the program,” he said. “This makes them feel good and they have more self-respect and a better appreciation for these communities.”

Historical Society President John Bulger said the building is used to host meetings and other public-service events and the cost of the renovation, if not for the inmates’ help, would have been too much for them to incur.

“We have to carry a pretty substantial insurance policy on this building in case something were to happen here, and our cost for that is around a $1,000 a year,” he said. “This building definitely needed some work, but the cost would have been too great for us.”

Inmates came to paint the building 11 years ago, he said, and the paint held up very well over the years, Bulger said.

The exterior will get another coat of paint this time around, he said. The inmates will be on hand for two weeks, Bulger said, and they all seem excited to be helping out.

“We’re trying to keep the building as historic as possible, and all of their help is great. They’re just doing a great job here. They’re a great group of guys,” he said while surveying the workers.

The first schoolhouse to sit on that property was built in 1767, he said, with the current building built in 1851. It housed grades 1 through 12 and still has many of the original features inside, including artwork, wallpaper and a wood stove.

Additionally, Bulger said they have all of the desks and chairs from when it was an operating schoolhouse. The building was left vacant in 1939.