Lynn Zwerling's knitting group for male prisoners opens up their world
A retired salesperson saw how the act of knitting, and a supportive environment, could calm inmates and even help them give back to society.
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"I told her: 'Everybody wants to knit; they just don't know they do,' " Zwerling recalls.Skip to next paragraph
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Somehow, she made the sale.
"Lynn is a salesperson. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it," says Chippendale, now assistant warden for the Maryland Correctional Pre-Release System. "I was a little skeptical. But she had made up her mind."
When Chippendale pitched the idea of dozens of sharp objects being brought into the facility each week for a knitting class, her staff was less than thrilled. Even after she addressed their safety concerns – they would count the needles coming in and out of the prison each week – there was another worry: Would men even show up for a knitting class?
Chippendale saw Zwerling's idea as an avenue for "restorative justice," a way for prisoners to give back to the community they had harmed. That, she decided, was worth the risks. She asked some of the inmates she knew best to show up for Zwerling's first class. In the weeks that followed, they returned on their own to make "comfort dolls" for children at a local domestic violence shelter.
"It was very compelling to watch these guys, some of them with tattoos all over their body, just these big gorillas of guys, trying to knit and helping each other," Chippendale says.
Now, nearly three years later, 254 felons have passed through the Knitting Behind Bars program. Its annual budget is $350, which Zwerling and fellow volunteers raise selling yarn-ball necklaces at the annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Other donations come through Ravelry.com, a social network for knitters.
This night, as Zwerling gets Butler started on his first square of blanket, down the table Dwayne Harris works carefully on a red glove, a complicated operation involving four needles.
When his bunk buddy first invited him to join Jessup's knitting group nine months ago, Mr. Harris, who looks like a young, goateed Morgan Freeman, said, "You out of your mind.' "
Then his friend sold it: "They got air conditioning."
When Harris visited the class, Zwerling, and her friend and Knitting Behind Bars cofounder Sheila Rovelstad, won him over.
"Come on, you'll like it, the Zen," he says, mimicking them, to laughs from the group. "It'll help you with anger management."
Across the table, Adam Hoover is working on an electric blue-and-black striped hat, a fresh pirate skeleton tattoo still raw on his pale forearm.
The idea that participants give many of the knitted hats they make to local elementary school students appealed to Mr. Hoover. "I know how it feels to be out there in the winter sometimes," he says. "It definitely sucks."
Hoover and Harris say the group is a place where they can relax and let their guard down. As they say this, the group falls silent while a red-faced young man with a spider-web tattoo on his neck tells Zwerling about his little brother's troubles in foster care.
Nowhere else in the prison do guys share their personal struggles like this, whispers Hoover. "I think the ladies bring it out of you," says James Russell, working on a pale blue hat beside Hoover. "They just have an ease, like you can talk to them about anything. Like a mother would do."
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