MARION — While having lunch at the Marion Correctional Institution a few weeks ago, I leaned over to ask a table of inmates what they would usually be eating.
“Pizza,” one said — “little ones, like cardboard.”
The pizza he had all to himself that day was a 12-incher with generous toppings — and neither he nor anyone else was complaining about the quality.
It was appreciation day for the 40 or so inmates who build bed frames and dressers for the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio, which donates the items to needy people.
The jobs are highly coveted at Marion, which houses about 2,600 medium- and minimum-security inmates.
“I have a waiting list of people who want to get down here,” said Robert Stark, a contractor who runs the program.
The prison had designated Kelly Lee Parsons, 41, as the inmate who would talk on the record about the Furniture Bank program.
Records indicate that he is serving a life sentence for aggravated murder and aggravated robbery, crimes he committed at age 17 in Summit County.
Parsons, who serves as Stark’s clerk in the furniture shop, called the program the best thing that has happened to him in prison.
“I love it,” he said. “Knowing that I’m making a difference and helping is something that’s really had an impact on my life.
“My parents’ house burnt down in 2008, and it was organizations like the Red Cross and furniture banks that came together and helped them. And I thought this was a good way for me to give back.”
Founded in 1998 as Material Assistance Providers, the Furniture Bank (www.furniturebankcoh.org) began its partnership with the prison in 2011.
(It had tried a similar program at Marion in 2005 that didn’t last.)
Here’s how it works: Sauder Woodworking — an Archbold, Ohio, company that makes assemble-it-yourself furniture — donates flawed sheets of plastic-coated particleboard to the Furniture Bank. The bank uses it to make beds, dressers and tables (all high-demand items for its clients) with volunteer labor at its Yale Avenue headquarters and with the Marion inmates.
This year, the inmates have turned out 1,138 bed frames and 1,189 dressers — about 35 percent of the bank’s production.
A truckload of products is picked up every week at Marion, and the items quickly find their way into the homes of immigrants, the formerly homeless and other people who need them.
And, back in November, the bank said thanks, calling each inmate to the front of a staff dining room to accept a certificate and a pizza (made in-house).
I asked Stark which was more eagerly awaited.
His reply: “I think it’s the pizza, to be honest.”