Hope Floats
11/04/2010
Maryland Life Magazine

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They start with chicken wire, bed sheets, cardboard boxes, and throwaway pieces of wood, but they end up inspiring oohs and aahs from the Eastern Shore children and adults who marvel at them. They’re parade floats that move, sing, blow bubbles, and swirl snow.

And, remarkably, they’re created entirely by prisoners.

It was more than a decade ago when Captain Frank Rhodes, a parade-loving corrections officer at the Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI) in Westover, came up with the idea for a float-building project within the walls of the prison.

The project—which is comprised entirely of inmates overseen by officers—was an immediate hit, not only with those involved in the building of the floats, but with the outside communities, whose citizens eagerly await what ECI will come up with next.

Lieutenant Karen Raimundo, currently in charge of the project, gives lavish praise to the Eastern Shore’s citizens, because they’ve been so accepting of the effort put forth.

“They absolutely love it,” says Raimundo, admitting that the enthusiasm also brings pressure to build bigger and better floats at the Somerset County facility, the state’s largest prison.

“Just when we think we can’t do it any better and can only go down, we end up going up a little bit,” she says.

Raimundo is quick to give the credit to the only people who never, for obvious reasons, get to go to the parades: the inmates themselves.

“They submit a request slip to me saying they have certain skills or talents,” she explains. “Everyone brings something different to the project. Some are carpenters, some welders, some artists.

“We bring them together, they work as a team, and they pull it off.”

Raimundo goes on to say that some inmates bring nothing but a desire to pitch in. These are often the ones who benefit the most, since they get a chance to learn skills that will serve them well on the outside.

“Some have never even seen a tool until they get here,” says Raimundo. “They learn about the tools, and now they can build things. It’s a great sense of accomplishment for them.”

It’s more than that, too.

“The inmates get great pleasure in seeing something they helped build go out into the community. It’s through the floats that the community can see them as people who are doing good,” says Raimundo.

“A lot of these men are doing a lot of time. They’ve committed crimes, stood before a judge, and been sentenced. Now they have a chance to give back by doing something on a positive note.

“You should see their faces when we come back from a parade. They’re full of questions. ‘How did the kids like it?’ ‘Was there a big crowd with a lot of cheering and applause?’ It’s very important to them to hear how the community reacted.”

A couple Christmases back, the community especially loved the inmates’ Looney Tunes floats—even though Raimundo was convinced that the giant rooster, Foghorn Leghorn, would be impossible to construct.

“An inmate approached me and said, ‘Lieutenant, I think I can pull it off if you just let me try.’”

She did, and he did.

All of the scrap material for the floats comes from within the prison walls, meaning the state spends no money on the project.

“We look in every corner for wire, wood, unusable bed sheets, cardboard boxes, and old mattresses [for the stuffing], and the finished product is absolutely amazing,” says Raimundo.

Inmate Victor Winegardner is a carpenter on the float-building project and one of Raimundo’s best workers.

“I like the fact that it’s for the kids,” he says. “It makes me feel good when I hear stories about how the kids react when they see the floats. It makes me feel human when I can come up here and work all day, and get away from prison life for awhile.

“I’m doing 51 years, and the job is a good escape.”

Timothy Wilkes, serving 40 years, says giving something back to the community is a humbling experience. “I do painting, carpentry, and whatever is needed. All the skills I have, I picked up here.”

Wilkes adds that he likes the fact that what he does brings pleasure to children.

Another inmate, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, is an expert in air brushing and says the project gives him a sense of purpose.

“I have three kids of my own,” he explains, “and it’s satisfying to know that what I did made some little kid smile.”

Inmate William Cintron agrees.

“Just to know that what I do puts a smile on some child’s face is all the thanks I need,” says Cintron, an Iraq War vet and father of two young girls.