You've heard of prisoners making license plates for cars, and even
furniture, but how about model airplanes? According to this article
from a 1962 edition of American Modeler, inmates at
Southern Michigan Prison (SMP) used to build model airplanes
that were then sold through a local "hobbycraft" store. No mention
is made of the outlet's name, or whether the people who purchased
the models knew that they had been built by SMP prisoners. The model
airplanes building program ran for many years before the warden
would allow flying within the prison walls because of the potential
security and safety problems involved with propellers (stabbing
implements), fuel (the facility had a few famous arsons during riots),
steel control line cables (great for choking someone), glue and
dope (sniffing), and razor knives (for clean cuts of throats as
well as balsa). Only control line flying was permitted in order
to contain the activity to a well-defined and monitored area. A
quick search to look for prisons today that allow model airplane
building and/or flying did not turn up anything.
Modeling at World's Largest Prison
By Bill Dye & Hugh Dillon
Modeling at World's Largest Prison.
It can happen anywhere - including inside prison! "Well,
back to the ole drawing board and workbench."
World's largest prison is at Jackson, Michigan.
There's always an expert in the crowd like our friend
The world's largest prison at Jackson, Michigan, might be the
last place where you'd expect to hear the full throated roar of
a perfectly functioning "35" model engine. But five evenings a week
the stunters zip around the "back 40" - a portion of the Southern
Michigan Prison recreation area set aside for the Southern Michigan
Prison Flying Model Club.
As a hobbycraft project, shelf-scale non-operating model airplane
building has been permitted for quite some time. But only recently
have the prisoners been allowed to fly planes. The club now has
over a dozen members and interest is growing fast.
"We used to build planes and sell them through the Hobbycraft
store without even knowing if they would fly," said one member.
"Now, when we sell one, we know we aren't disappointing anyone because
we can test fly 'em."
"I am concerned with the smooth operation of the prison," Deputy
Warden Charles Cahill said, "and like in any prison, tensions will
naturally build. Building models is a healthy and natural outlet
for these tensions. I'm the Deputy Warden in charge of Custody,
but the rehabilitation of men is a concern of mine also. When you
have men involved and enjoying normal projects and taking pride
in a job well done, you have men taking a step on the road to rehabilitation.
"We checked with model builders in Jackson to set up the original
ground rules for the model club here in the prison, and a lot of
thought was given to the project. So far, we have had no violation
of the rules, and are pleased with the results it is showing."
Deputy Cahill went on to say that his 14 year old son was a model
fan, and had a 6 foot job under construction.
When the idea for the prison club was first advanced the drawbacks
appeared to be noise, the highly inflammable fuel which could be
a security risk, the models that could be a disruptive influence
by flying over the walls.
Through the cooperation of the custody division and the hobbycraft
department, these problems were soon solved. The men would fly their
planes only in the evening and at the distant end of the recreation
area. "Gas" would be checked out in small quantities (enough for
one evening's flight activity) and none allowed in a prisoner's
possession except in the flying area. And there are no free flight
models. All planes must fly on control lines .
One evening when an onlooker asked why the flyers didn't use
a longer control cable, a club member answered, "I put a lot of
hours into building my plane and I don't want it shot down over
As with any new program in a prison, considerable caution marked
the selection of participants for the model airplane club. They
were carefully screened and only men with good conduct records and
attitudes were cleared for membership.
Hobbycraft Supervisor Hank Newcomb, through whose department
all modeler's supplies are ordered, observed, "We probably have
the largest and most inclusive hobbycraft department in any prison
in the country - but in order to progress, we must constantly be
on the lookout for new hobbies that will be permissible and not
be a detriment to the men or institution. The model club falls in
this category. It has worked out well, and men who have not previously
taken any interest in hobbies have become quite enthused over the
modeling. There are several benefits in building planes. Not only
do the men get the pleasure of creating something, they have the
fun of flying and learning how their creations work. This is about
the only hobby we have where the man can actually keep and use the
item he builds. Most of the other things go out on the counter for
sale or home to relatives."
Stan Riker, Assistant Supervisor of Hobbycraft: "I'm fast learning
the difference in fuels and weights of balsa. These men are fastidious
about what they order, and seem to know just what weight wood does
the best job in what place. I think it is good they take pride in
what they are doing and try to do the best job possible."
The, model airplane club at SMP is more than a project to help
the men pass time. Many prisoners never participated in group activities
before entering prison. Now the modelers help each other with mechanical
and structural problems.
"These men take real pride in their planes," declared Hank Newcomb,
SMP Hobbycraft supervisor. "When a man brings a new plane to the
field the others crowd around and look it over. Perhaps for the
first time, the builder receives attention for doing something constructive.
This is important in his readjustment."
The reasons for building and flying models are varied. One man
said, "I wanted to build planes for many years. I had a photography
studio and was too busy. Now, I'm serving a life sentence-I've
got plenty of time."
Another confided, "I've got a boy who doesn't get too many toys
while his dad is in prison. I can build models, test fly them and
pass them on to him. The look on his face when I hand him a new
plane in the visiting room - well ... !"
Others make models for the pure satisfaction of creating something
beautiful and functional. Many sell their models, not for profit
but so they can buy more materials.
Usually, going to prison means penal servitude. But in the case
of model planes that go to the Southern Michigan Prison, their function
is one of service.
"As Director of Treatment," declares Gerald Hansen, "I approve
of any project that will teach a man skills, patience and perseverance.
Because this is a prison, and because there are many factors involved
besides what the men themselves want, we are happy to find some
new outlet for the instinct every man seems to have to build and
create. Model building has filled a need here and we are happy to
see men in the program that were not interested in any of the other
hobby programs we have.
"We are not 'coddling' prisoners when we permit them to build
models and other hobbycraft items. We are attempting to teach them
that they can do something they might take pride in - and this pride
and skill just might be the deciding factor as to whether a man
will return to prison or take his proper place in society and stay
Posted May 3, 2014