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Jailhouse Toyland : County Inmates Help Out Santa by Building Gifts for the Needy


Clad in county-issue blue, three inmates were thanked by county supervisors this week for the colorful wooden toys they had built to donate to poor and homeless children for Christmas.

The three men were flanked by a sheriff's deputy and Sheriff John Gillespie.

In front of them was an array of doll cribs painted in pastels, rocking horses in two sizes and sturdy tractor-trailer rigs that will surely be the envy of many a neighborhood.

"Jim Campos here did a scene from 'All Dogs Go to Heaven' on the end of one of the cribs," Gillespie said. "It is really artwork. I told Mr. Campos that when he gets out, he should be a commercial artist."

The three, all convicted of misdemeanors, are inmates at the new Rose Valley Work Camp, where the sheriff's department uses a military-like regimen to rehabilitate inmates and train them in vocations.

Sheriff's deputies and about 10 inmates set up what they called Santa's Workshop, where they produced 150 of the large toys.

"I've been in a position like that when I was homeless," Campos said later, speaking of the children who would receive the gifts. "And I have my own kids. It just made me feel good to do it."

James Mellinger of Ventura, who used table saws and jigsaws in the county shop to cut the toys' shapes, said he wanted the gifts to go to kids who might receive very little otherwise. He has five children of his own.

Richard Bond of Agoura, an inmate who remains a partner in a swimming pool business, said the workshop helped inmates and sheriff's deputies work together.

"You feel a little better about them and they know you a little better," he said.

None of the three inmates were invited to speak to the board as they stood in front of the audience, with their hands folded in front of them, and no board members were observed shaking hands when they came down from the dais for a closer look at the creations.

But the men got the message of gratitude all the same.

"We knew the kids would like them, but to be able to see everybody here saying thanks like this and to see that everybody really is thankful, that means a lot," Bond said.

Next year, Gillespie plans to have the men start earlier on the project.

He wants them to build 500 toys, if they receive the necessary donations of scrap lumber and paint.

Gillespie said he'll bring children up to Rose Valley on buses, where Santa will hand out the toys, and the inmates will see the children they've helped.

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