Ornaments handmade by incarcerated men in North Carolina prison adorn governors Christmas tree

Wake County News

RALEIGH, N.C. (CBS News) – At the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, North Carolina, five unique Christmas trees are decked out to the nines. One local woman had an idea to make one of the five Christmas trees extra special this year. Her name is Sue Etheridge, and she is an art therapy teacher who has worked in prisons for 30 years.

Etheridge currently works at North Carolina’s Central Prison, teaching art therapy to those who are in the hospital receiving mental health treatment.

About six months ago, Etheridge had an idea to get her students’ artwork in Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Mansion. Her idea for a Christmas tree was approved and now, about 200 ornaments created by offenders hang in the governor’s home.

“They were just so honored,” Etheridge said of her students. “But then they were making a few jokes. Like, I said, ‘Well what would you like to say to the governor if you could say something?’ And one person said, ‘Pardon me.’”

CBS News met Etheridge at the Executive Mansion where she couldn’t stop “puttering” around the tree. She is proud of her students work — many of whom have overcome the odds to create this art.

“Since we’re in a psychiatric hospital, some people have difficulty,” Etheridge said. Due to possible self-mutilation and aggression, the offenders’ only eating utensil is a paper spoon. One of Etheridge’s students saw more in the utensil. “He saved his spoons until he had a handful. And he fanned them out for me and said, ‘Mrs. Etheridge, we could make fans out of these and sell them to make money for the veterans.'”

“You know that’s good-hearted,” Etheridge said. “And that’s my hope, that art therapy will be the kind of treatment that brings that out in these people.”

Offenders have used their paper spoons to make snowman ornaments and their milk cartons to make little houses and buildings, which are displayed on the tree. “Probably things that have never been on the governor’s tree before, like a pawn shop and a tattoo parlor and things like that,” Etheridge said with a laugh. “They do have a sense of humor.”

Etheridge, who has two children and three grandchildren of her own, say the offenders treat her like a grandmother figure. She teaches at the Central Prison hospital 20 hours a week and she has no plans of retiring any time soon.

Not only are the offenders’ art materials limited, so are some of their abilities. However, Etheridge makes sure each one can create something special in art therapy — which is just one of the many programs for inmate rehabilitation at the prison. These programs are aimed at providing offenders with the skills and mindset to return to their communities when they complete their sentences.

Etheridge said her students were very proud and excited to know their art would be in the governor’s house. “They’re really grateful to me. And I keep telling them, ‘It’s not me, it’s your work.'”

The offenders can’t leave the prison to go see their work on display, so Etheridge takes photos to show them. “They expressed so much honor and satisfaction into being honored in this way,” Etheridge said. “It’s as though they’re thinking, ‘I’ve been in the news for awful reasons, and now I get to do something positive that makes a difference.’”

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