Gideon Walletsky: convict, lifer, and … purse-maker?

When Gideon called his daughter, Naomi, to ask for $25 recently, she naturally assumed the worst. She just knew he needed money for his recurring drug habits, but that wasn’t the case. This time, something wonderful and exciting had happened: Gideon had been given the chance to work in the prison’s leather shop, where inmates make products like purses, belts, and even gun holsters.

A lot for a little

Leroy, an inmate who worked in the leather shop, was scheduled to be paroled the following Tuesday and was selling his leatherworking tools and supplies to raise money for his new life on the outside. The 69-year-old spent 31 years—nearly half his life—in prison and has few marketable skills, so getting the most money for his supplies and tools was important.

Still, Leroy was willing to make Gideon a deal on some of the items. For $25, Gideon could buy a “starter kit” that included:

  • Four belts;
  • Belt buckles;
  • Black, green, and purple dyes;
  • Rollers (to roll out leather so it can be stamped);
  • Letter stamps;
  • Stamps of an eagle, sea shells, and a half moon;
  • A little lace;
  • A leather punch;
  • A rubber mallet; and
  • A few pieces of leather for practice.

Cutting a deal

Naomi was skeptical about sending the money, despite Gideon’s excitement at the opportunity. Gideon spent most of the previous weekend asking his family to pay a drug debt, and he was drunk on jailhouse wine when he called a few days later. (He sold six jars of wine for another inmate to get one for himself.) Naomi was afraid her father would use the money for more drugs or booze. “Wouldn’t you be?” she asked.

Gideon was desperate. He didn’t want to miss a rare shot to work in the leather shop. Inmates must get permission to work in the shop, and it’s very difficult to get a good spot on the list. “The list is so long, and everything is so corrupt about the deal,” Gideon complained. “You slip the guard $5, and he’ll move you up the list.”

Gideon knew he had to come up with the money fast. Leroy had already put Gideon’s name on his locker in the shop and was expecting him to take his place, but the soon-to-be free man couldn’t wait long. In fact, Leroy was holding the tools and supplies for Gideon even though other inmates were lined up in his cell to purchase them. “He just likes me and is trying to help me out,” Gideon explained.

After looking up Leroy’s sentence and parole date to make sure he really was being released, Naomi agreed to pay the $25 in hopes that learning a new skill will be a positive hobby for her father. Not only will leatherworking allow Gideon to make money by selling his products, but it will also give him something to do. “It’s definitely a time-passer,” he said.

The next day, Gideon called back to ask for another $25 to buy more dyes, stamps, buckles, and snaps from Leroy. It was obvious he felt guilty about asking for more money, but he had no choice if he wanted to buy the supplies at a low price.  If he couldn’t make a deal with Leroy now, he would have to purchase the items from the commissary’s craft list later, an expensive proposition. “The only reason it’s right now is because we can’t get [the supplies] for that price later,” Gideon noted.

This time, however, Naomi balked because other expenses—namely, car insurance and student loans—have added up recently. Gideon’s mother, Ruth, didn’t respond well, either. “Mama blowed a gasket when I talked to her,” he said.

‘A never-ending money pit’

Because the tools and supplies are pricey, Gideon knows his new hobby must make enough money to sustain itself. “It’s a never-ending money pit to just keep doing it,” he explained. “It’s expensive to buy all these things if you have to start from scratch. It’s a never-ending process of collecting tools.”

Guards haven’t opened the leather shop since Gideon bought his tools and supplies because the prison has been short-staffed. Extras like the leather shop aren’t accessible unless the prison has enough guards to ensure security. “Right now, I just want to get up there and play with it—see what I can do with what I got,” Gideon lamented.

leather

Items made in the prison leather shop are held together with lacing.

Gideon knows it will take a while for him to develop his leatherworking skills and make products he can sell, so his goal is to find an experienced leatherworker who will teach him the trade once the shop reopens. “For the next couple months, I’ll just be playing. I hope someone will feel sorry for me and try to show me something,” he joked. His first project will be to imprint a picture of an eagle and draw a shadow behind it to make it stand out from the leather.

Gideon can learn some skills, such as lacing, in his cell before the leather shop reopens. Belts, purses, and other items produced in the shop are held together with lacing. Gideon acknowledged that he should’ve learned how to lace items years ago. “There’s always someone willing to pay you because they don’t want to do it,” he said.

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