Turning Penance to Profit

updated 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Carrying a roll of blueprints under his arm, Phil Eaton leads his ragtag work crew across the rain-soaked prison yard to a half-finished row of concrete cells. The sun came up 20 minutes ago, but it's a gray dawn and Eaton, flicking away a cigarette, checks the sky for rain. As he does so, the eyes of several dozen men turn to the tall, slightly stooped figure, waiting for his verdict on the day. Eaton scans the roofless shell of what will soon be the prison's newest addition—a 200-cell facility—then signals to start pouring in more foundation. Work begins all over the site—welders, carpenters, masons, drivers of cranes and dump trucks—and everyone moves. On the surface, it looks like just another noisy building project.

Eaton, however, is no ordinary hard hat; he's a convicted murderer and the gang boss of a unique program at the Delaware Correctional Center near Smyrna. The idea is to encourage prisoners to rehabilitate themselves by building prisons. "We're all convicts," Eaton says, "murderers, rapists, thieves, you name it. But we're proving to everybody who said we'd fail, who said we couldn't be trusted inside or outside the fences—we're proving 'em wrong."

Eaton, 47, was a well-regarded, Wilmington construction foreman, earning $28,000 a year, until Sept. 23,1974 when, in a moment of rage, he killed his ex-wife's fiancé. He points to a wall surrounding the prison's gallows. (Delaware's death penalty now calls for execution by lethal injection.) "They built a gallows for me," Eaton says. "They never got to use it, but for a while there I was all set to drop from a rope."

Instead his conviction was overturned on appeal. At a second trial in 1976 he was sentenced to life without parole. Since then the project he started nine years ago with five handpicked inmates has grown to an 80-man operation that has saved Delaware more than $25 million in prison building costs, captured the imagination of prison administrators nationwide—and trained hundreds of unskilled cons for construction jobs on the outside. Today hundreds more await acceptance into the project—a chance to learn a trade and earn good-behavior time. "If it weren't for Phil, none of us would be here," says Ed Strickland, a carpentry foreman and convicted rapist. "We'd be nowhere, still in our cells staring at flies on the ceiling. He's been in 12 years, gotten us all kinds of 'good time' with our work, helped us, taught us and got us some self-respect."

Eaton's transformation from the Delaware teenager who loved to work with his contractor father to the convict prison builder began at 17, when he married his Townsend, Del. high school sweetheart, Nancy Baker. "From day one, I had her on a pedestal," he recalls. "I loved her more than anything. I dropped out of school in my senior year, built us a three-bedroom house by myself and never stopped working. I think that's where the problem started. Even though we had three kids, I was so busy I never had time to see the family, and my wife and I started to drift apart." Even after their divorce, he insists, he still loved his wife and hoped for a reconciliation. In the 1973 settlement, he says, "I gave her everything,"—the 152-acre farm and house, his truck and custody of their children. And when his onetime best friend—37-year-old Andrew Greene, a self-employed engineer—moved in with her and the pair announced they would wed, Eaton snapped.

"Under extreme emotional distress" as doctors later testified, he shot and killed the groom-to-be. The defense argued he wasn't aware of what he did, and had only a vague memory of the crime. Nevertheless, a jury of 12 found him guilty of first-degree murder.

On his first day in prison, Eaton says he decided "to use my skills, to pay my debt to society, since there was no way on earth I could repay the family I had hurt with my crime." He began doing odd jobs around the prison and eventually started a cellblock "factory" making Popsicle-stick lamps and stuffed animals. He and his friends were so successful that the warden asked him if he would remove some old kitchen stoves and replace them with new ones. He agreed, but only if he could use his trusted crew of five. "I knew their skills, their habits," he says. "When we finished, the warden just said, 'Fine, keep working.' " Soon they were installing air conditioners and doors, erecting walls and remodeling a kitchen, offices and a mail room.

Then in 1978 he was asked for the first time to work outside the prison—to build five "dog boxes" for the prison's canine patrol. Although officials were criticized for allowing six cons to work outside the prison with tools that could be used as weapons, they built 10 handsome doghouses without incident. "That was the turning point," Eaton says. "We worked next to a cornfield, and for the time it takes a stalk to grow seven feet high, that's how long they trusted us. It's been the same ever since—they trust us." In the past nine years, he reports, more than 400 men have worked under him; only two have ever tried to escape and they were quickly caught. Eaton says he and his crew probably police themselves more than the guards do, closely supervising all workers and keeping strict, daily tool counts. Rule-breakers face removal of privileges and expulsion from the project.

In November 1981 Eaton received word that his middle child—19-year-old John—had been hit and killed by a train in Florida. Distraught, he buried himself in work, plunging into ever bigger, more ambitious projects. He began submitting designs for prison buildings, and officials let him and his growing crew build a string of impressive structures, from a 50-bed halfway house and a 144-bed work release center to an $800,000, 300-bed facility.

By the early 1980s "Eaton's Ants"—as he once tagged them—numbered about 50, the wheelbarrows were replaced by a dump truck, and, says Howard Stafford, the crew's Corrections Department supervisor, "They were sometimes building at one-tenth the cost we'd pay an outside contractor." Stafford also notes that although the men continue to earn only an average of 50 cents an hour, many will work up to 80 and 90 hours a week to earn good-behavior time (one day off their sentence for every 24 hours' overtime).

"We borrowed and scrounged for equipment all over four states," says Rick Woodard, Eaton's top foreman, who was convicted of forgery and theft. Woodard, 34, who's a few credits short of a mechanical engineering degree, says he has "off-site" status to make purchases and has never had problems with suppliers because they're dealing with convicts. Jack Melvin, a Smyrna lumber salesman, for example, reports Eaton's crew is "always honest, very professional and a big cut above the stereotype criminal."

In 1982 Eaton was allowed to attend his eldest son's wedding. There he met Lena Unruh, his son's buoyant, new mother-in-law and a divorcee. In the following years Lena visited Eaton, and the two gradually fell in love. Then last spring, citing a new law, prison authorities permitted him to visit her on weekends at her home near Smyrna. "It changed my life," he says. "I was living in a vacuum and suddenly I was starting a life again. Working in the prison gave me a purpose, but she gave me life." The pair plan to get married eventually, but their romance met a snag when state authorities abruptly canceled Eaton's weekend furloughs. "That was tough, but I don't care if he's locked up forever—we're still going to get married," says Lena, 57.

These days Eaton and the foremen are allowed to live in several ramshackle trailers outside the prison near their workshops, toolsheds and concrete mixing plant. Some nonproject inmates protest the preferential treatment that he and his crew receive (they have their own kitchen and offices, and most don't have to wear prison uniforms), but Eaton still feels very much a prisoner. While all five of his original crew have been released, his efforts to win eligibility for parole have failed so far, despite statewide support. Last January more than 50 friends and other supporters braved one of the worst snowstorms in recent Delaware history to reach a Dover courthouse to testify on his behalf. The appeal was denied, but retiring Corrections Commissioner John L. Sullivan, long an Eaton admirer, predicts it's "only a matter of time" until he is granted a reduced sentence.

"If they let me out," Eaton says, "I'd love to continue here as a state employee. I won't build fences or guard towers—that's where I draw the line in helping the prison system—but I could start an apprentice program, get women inmates involved, show other states how it's done; the possibilities are endless. We've got three more projects on the drawing boards and I've got 350 guys on the waiting list wanting to work. There's talent galore in those cells, and not just for forging checks."

It's dusk now—12 hours after the working day began—and Eaton trudges back to the trailers for dinner. From up ahead comes the sharp smell of chili and the sizzle of hamburgers. Several patrolling guards wave and pass on. Eaton says they're hardly ever noticed. "See the gallows over there," he adds, motioning toward the pine wall where a lone seagull wheels off into the distance. "That's all the security we need. None of us will ever forget what we've done."

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