SHIRLEY, Mass. — With his protective eyeglasses, taut build and special care as he maneuvers a plank of plywood, Rodney Egerton could pass for a typical craftsman donating his time to Habitat for Humanity.
If it weren't for the nearby barbed wire and careful watch of prison guards.
With this wood, Egerton is making more than a kitchen cabinet. He is making a future for himself and making amends.
"I had a lot of victims, my family, other families," said Egerton, 43, a former drug dealer who is part of a new volunteer program linking inmates with carpentry skills to nonprofit home-building associations. "To me, it means a lot because I have a chance to give back to the community," he said. "Now I'm helping people I used to hurt."
A massive workshop has been set up in a maintenance and industries building on the campus of MCI-Shirley, one of the state's medium-security prisons, for the building trades program.
The 14 inmates selected to participate from the 1,100 men at the prison are learning skills they hope will translate to well-paying jobs when they're released. For now, though, they are truly volunteers, not earning a dime from the work, although prisoners in other vocational programs that help maintain the facilities often earn an hourly stipend.
The men know that their handiwork eventually will be put into homes for people who cannot afford them on their own.
"This is some way of feeling better about things, making things right," said Richard Kasperowitz, 35, who has served four years and has four more to go on his sentence for burglary.
The program is an example of how the state is moving away from the crime-fighting philosophies of the past decade, which focused more on warehousing and punishment, to one that better emphasizes preparing prisoners to reenter society.
Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, who heads the Governor's Commission on Criminal Justice Innovation, said this program mirrors others started by sheriffs around the state and marks a push for greater access to meaningful education for inmates.
"We're holding up our end of giving them every opportunity to change," he said in an interview. "But we're not reducing prison sentences; we're not letting people out early. We're not saying we're going to get soft on crime."
Correction Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy said there is little cost to the state for a program such as the one with Habitat. The prison already had the tools and space, and much of the supplies are donated.
"We have the cost of staff in terms of supervision, but we'd be doing it anyway," she said.
And this is the type of program that research shows works to help reduce rates of prisoners committing new crimes after they get out, she said.
At MCI-Shirley, inmates in the Habitat program recently completed 12 weeks in full-time classes, learning about woodworking, tool safety and other carpentry skills. In January, they got to enjoy the smell of a freshly cut piece of wood.
"It gives a small sense of giving something back, rather than just going to the chow hall three times a day and standing for count," said James Drewnowski, 42, who has spent 19 of the past 22 years behind bars. He has seven years remaining on his sentence for breaking into a store and stealing cigarettes while addicted to crack cocaine.
"I haven't had any accountability or responsibility, but I do now," he said. "You get a $50 piece of wood and you stop and think, 'How can this be best used so you don't waste it?' "
The plan is for the program to expand beyond 14 inmates and the kitchen cabinets being built to include insulated wall panels and roof trusses, said John Judge, who came up with the idea of teaming prisoners with nonprofit home-building groups in hopes of easing the affordable housing crisis.
The former executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Boston and current chairman of the Massachusetts Service Alliance brought the idea to Healey. He enlisted the help of the Boston Architectural Center, which is developing a prototype of wall panels for the inmates to use as models.
Judge said this program will cut the costs for the nonprofits, allowing them to build more, while providing skills to make inmates productive on the outside.
Instructor Robert Wirtanen said his students are serious about their work and what it means for them and the recipients. To qualify, the inmates needed a high school diploma or equivalent and at least two years remaining on their sentences so they'll have enough time to complete the training.
Wirtanen already has orders for at least a dozen vanities and 20 sets of kitchen cabinets from various Habitat groups, although the program will take orders from any nonprofit home-building group. Each set of cabinets made by inmates will save Habitat between $500 and $1,200.
And the skills the inmates gain go well beyond the tools and shop safety.
They also learn life skills -- organization, planning, prioritizing, getting to work on time. They spend five to six hours a day, five days a week, in the shop class. And the state is working on the education portion, so successful completion will earn the inmates a certificate from a trade school or organization, much as the Department of Correction's barber shop program can earn participants a state license.
"If we don't do something to change these guys' lives, when they get out of there, all they're going to know is what they knew when they came in here," Wirtanen said. "This is where the buck stops, with programs like this.
"We're not only changing minds by educating and giving them new ideas. We're changing hearts."