Made famous by the galactically successful Star Wars film franchise, the Millennium Falcon was known as the fastest ship in the galaxy. Despite her unassuming beginnings and rough exterior, the Falcon has made its mark in the epic space opera film series — and in an unexpected place in Wasco.
When I walked onto the yard last Monday and saw the newest version of the Millennium Falcon being built for her next adventure, I felt like I had walked into a makeshift hobby shop instead of a guarded fenced area at the Wasco State Prison.
And although the detailed work wasn’t quite done, like a parent watching his or her child ride a bike for the first time, all seven inmates stood and proudly gleamed at the large Millennium Falcon model they built from prison refuse.
At the invitation of Wasco State Prison Warden John Sutton, I was invited to come observe the Falcon crew build its vehicle for the “Road to Recovery” competition at the upcoming 13th Annual Wasco/Shafter Relay for Life event. The event is free to the public and will be held from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. April 22 at Wasco High School.
Led by Lt. J. Aguilar, the Falcon construction crew had names that could have been those of main characters in the Star War movies. There was Hans, DaWan, Rafael, Gabriel, Sergio, Sherman and Manuel. And just like the famous tavern scene in Star Wars, each of the inmates I met that day had individual and unique personas. Each one was respectful and seemed to eagerly embrace the emotional reward of working on a community project.
My first question to each of the crew members was if any had been affected by cancer.
“My younger brother, my mom, my aunt, my father" — to the man, each had family members who had lost their battle with cancer. Each one mentally genuflecting as they recounted their losses.
No computer-generated plans or blueprints were anywhere. Each crew member had his area of expertise. One member was the artist who hand-drew various profiles of the Falcon for construction. One nicknamed the “Sandman” literally shaped the detailed Falcon with sandpaper out of prison-approved discarded paper, cardboard and miscellaneous material with the help of his crew.
And no conventional tools were allowed. Only makeshift paint brushes and rudimentary tools fashioned from prison-approved materials were allowed.
“The Millennium Falcon Relay Car Project allows inmates to use their skills to make a positive contribution to the local community and better prepares them for integration into society upon their release,” Sutton said.
Wasco State Prison has a proud history of inmate-, family- and staff-generated Relay for Life activities. Over the past two years, they have raised $8,800 for Relay for Life with an October in-prison event combined with donations generated by the race models they build for the “Road to Recovery” competition.
Warden Sutton is expected to slide into the Millennium Falcon for a foot race with other model vehicles at the Wasco/Shafter event. Winning the race is important to the inmates, but winning first place for the model design, as they did last year, is equally imperative.
“What was the most rewarding part of working on the Millennium Falcon?” I asked them.
Inmate DaWan Rowemanns wondered, “How does it make people feel when they see what we have done? We hope it takes them away from thinking about cancer or their losses, even for a little while. We hope people see us trying to doing good work for the community.”
Hans Ritter pointed to the other side of the fenced area to the general population.
“Out there we can’t bond or socialize like we do here,” he somberly stated.
The ethnically diverse crew all nodded in agreement. They were building a model but also becoming unexpected friends.
Winning is not always about where you finish but how you help.
My thanks to the Millennium Falcon inmate crew. You did help take me away from thinking about losing my loved one to cancer — even for a little while — as I am sure your Millennium Falcon will do at Relay for Life.