Prison inmates played Santa Claus for dozens of Ventura County youngsters Tuesday when they distributed handmade toys to needy children as part of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department's annual giveaway program.
The toys, brightly painted wooden rocking horses, airplanes, trains, dolls and cradles were made by inmates as part of the 5-year-old Santa's Workshop program at the sheriff's honor farm in Ojai.
Each year, a few of the 25 inmates in the program come to the County Government Center in Ventura to deliver their creations to the young recipients in a ceremony before the county Board of Supervisors.
"Going down there today was real nice," said a smiling William Bradley, a 23-year-old inmate who said he began using heroin when he was only a few years older than many of the kids taking home the gifts he made.
"It's real fun to work with other guys to make toys for children who can't afford them. It made my Christmas."
Inmates at the honor farm work year-round on the toys. Using stencils for patterns, the inmates form production lines to cut, sand and paint the toys. The facility's women inmates make the dolls. Materials are donated by local companies.
The children who receive the toys each year include those from the Candelaria American Indian Council, church groups, homeless shelters and other organizations.
"This is a terrific program," said Undersheriff Larry Carpenter, who was sworn in Tuesday to take over the top law enforcement job from Sheriff John V. Gillespie on Jan. 1. "It makes inmates feel like they're doing something generally constructive. They take such pride (in making the toys), it's like they're doing it for their own kids."
The inmates made about 500 toys this year, down from about 700 last year. The program's output was hampered when the county's Rose Valley Work Camp, where many of the toys were produced, was closed recently because of budget cuts.
The operation has since been moved to the Ojai Honor Farm, and Carpenter said that production should be back up for next Christmas.
Toy-making is part of the work camp's effort to rehabilitate repeat alcohol and drug offenders who make up most of the honor farm's 200 inmates. Other inmates work at such activities as growing vegetables, and raising pigs and rabbits.