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JAIL TURNS INTO TOY WORKSHOP FOR SEASON : INMATES MAKE DOLLS CARS, PLANES FOR KIDS.

Byline: Christopher Noxon Daily News Staff Writer

There is no frost on the windowsill of Santa's Workshop. There are no candy canes, no twinkling lights, no rhythmic patter of wooden hammers.

But Santa's Workshop has been up and running all the same. Shana Brunes counts herself as one of the elves.

Brunes is the first to admit she does not match the standard description of support staff for Santa. A hardy 23-year-old with a shock of yellow hair and wide eyes set far apart, Brunes is soft-spoken, mischievous, tough.

She is also a convict, serving a five-month sentence for welfare fraud at the Sheriff's Department's Jail Honor Farm in Ojai.

``I kind of tripped out when they told me I'd be sewing something for a little girl,'' she said. ``I've never done anything like it. I'm not really the volunteer type.''

But since signing up a month ago, Brunes has spent a few hours every day creating a doll out of swaths of scrap material, bunches of brightly colored yarn and a few strictly rationed needles.

Sometime today, the wobbly curve of a smile Brunes stitched will appear amid a flutter of ripped wrapping paper. She hopes her doll makes Christmas a little happier, a little fuller for a Ventura County youngster.

``I never made a doll before and when I was done it looked really weird,'' Brunes said. ``I thought mine was real ugly. Then another girl looked at it and said I was going to make some little kid real happy. I felt real good about that.''

Brunes' experience is typical of the inmates who have worked in Santa's Workshop, which has produced gifts for needy children for more than 10 years. Sheriff's officials say the program benefits convicts as much as children.

``When they're making these toys, they're reminded of their own childhood and maybe their own children,'' said Deputy Debra Schambra, who helps coordinate the project as part of Project Understanding, a special wing for female inmates with alcohol and drug addiction.

``Who's to say what Santa's elves really look like?'' Schambra said. ``Maybe this is what the essence of an elf looks like.''

This year, women in the program made about 20 dolls, floppy figures with plump limbs poking out under frilly shirt sleeves and petticoats. The dolls were heaped on a table in the maximum-security cellblock, their big button eyes staring blankly at rows of metal bunks and cinder block walls.

Brunes dressed her doll in a flowered green dress and covered its head with a tiny bonnet. Her work was closely supervised by deputies to ensure that safety pins and needles were returned - needles are valued commodities on the prison black market as tools of tattooing.

As she stitched, Brunes said she imagined a little girl clutching the doll in the same way she kept a stuffed pink cat given to her one Christmas many years ago.

The task of crafting dolls for children is especially meaningful for Brune, who was arrested in July after investigators discovered she had claimed $17,000 in welfare checks for two fictitious children.

``I never planned for my life to be this way, but things happen,'' she said. ``Now I'm looking forward to getting out, paying back the money and putting this all behind me.''

In another wing of the jail, male inmates craft wooden trucks and airplanes out of scrap lumber. This year, the convicts also repaired bicycles left unclaimed in Sheriff's Department impound yards.

The gifts were collected a few days before Christmas to be handed out by a sheriff's deputy dressed in white beard, black boots and big red suit. Needy families are identified with the help of the Salvation Army, El Concilio and the Candelaria American Indian Council.

They may not be rosy-cheeked little helpers, but those who work in Santa's Workshop are energized by something central to the spirit of Christmas, said Capt. Joe Funchess, facility manager of the Honor Farm.

``Santa works in mysterious ways,'' Funchess said. ``What these people are doing is what Christmas is all about.''

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2 Photos

Photo: (1-2--color) Above, Shana Brunes displays dolls she and other female inmates at the Honor Farm in Ojai made for underprivileged children. Ralph Romo, left, polishes an unclaimed bicycle from a sheriff's storage site that will be given away.

Evan Yee/Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 25, 1996
Words:724
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