By Russell Hixson
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Behind rows of razor wire, metal detectors, security guards and gray metal bars, prison inmate John Umoren put the finishing touches on his bird house, though it is safe to say few birds would dare go near it.
It is a tiger. The walls and roof are a fiery orange with wicked white teeth surrounding the entrance.
“There’s not a bird stupid enough to do this,” says Umoren, with a toothy grin.
He is dressed in blue jeans, a blue prison shirt and brown timberland shoes — dull compared to his flashy birdhouse.
Umoren has always been able to draw. It is a gift from God, he says. But only since being at Cushing’s Cimarron Correctional Facility has he begun to hone it and use it. If there is one thing you have in prison, it’s time.
Several others in the cell are working on birdhouses, too. But their creations aren’t for decorating one’s quarters or to send home as gifts. These inmates plan to auction the birdhouses off to help fund cancer research.
“When you come to prison, you don’t have an opportunity to say you’re sorry,” Umoren says.
He explained that as the years in prison have gone by, he has found helping others keeps him going. It gives him purpose, value and busy hands. But he and the other birdhouse craftsmen are not concerned about what it does for them. It’s about others.
“There’s a lot of people worse off than we are,” said inmate Robert Jones as he added shading to a roaming buffalo on the side of a patriotic birdhouse. The other side showcases “We The People” in meticulous calligraphy. Before prison, he couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler, he jokes.
“This allows me to contribute to society,” he says.
Each house takes about three to four days to complete, depending on the worker’s skill and the complexity of the design. They can sell for as much as $100. But it isn’t just birdhouses and cancer research. The birdhouse craftsmen are just one part of a growing movement among inmates at the jail itching to have a positive impact on the community at large.
Prison Quality Assurance Manager Cheryl Shoemaker said several inmates in early January were looking for ways to get involved in the prison’s Relay for Life fundraiser efforts. Posters, grandfather clocks made out of assorted materials, sand art and poetry poured in. The resulting club has grown to more than 26 members who meet to brainstorm ways to help others outside the prison. Membership continues to grow. Their next project will be decorating pumpkins for area hospitals.
“It has boosted morale on the yard,” Shoemaker said. “Prison is often a place of negativity.”
She said getting inmates involved in clubs reduces idleness and helps the community. It has had a dramatic impact on Umoren.
“It means everything,” said Umoren. “It’s why I get up in the morning.”
Some of the birdhouseses will be on display for a silent auction at SpiritBank in Cushing this month.