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.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff
Lynn Zwerling, cofounder of Knitting Behind Bars, sits in front of the Jessup Pre-Release Unit in Jessup, Md., where she teaches inmates to knit.

The first warden Lynn Zwerling approached with her idea recoiled as if she might bite. The second wouldn't meet with her. The third claimed to love the idea, then fell out of touch. Outrageous, said the fourth.

The fifth, Margaret Chippendale, at a minimum-security men's prison outside Baltimore, didn't have much hope for Ms. Zwerling's plan either.

"She brought the program to me and told me: 'Your inmates will get hooked. It will relax them, empower them,' " remembers Ms. Chippendale, a 40-year veteran of Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "And my gut reaction is: 'Lynn, I'm always looking for ways to do that, but I'm not sure I'm going to get a bunch of big, macho guys to sit around a table and knit.' "

On a recent Thursday night, 13 inmate members of the Knitting Behind Bars program at Jessup Pre-Release Unit (JPRU) in Jessup, Md., gather at long tables in a white and gray cinder-block room. The men are a cross section of the prison population: old and young, black and white.

Tyrell Butler, a young inmate with a gold tooth and tattoos ringing both arms, is joining the group for the first time. He watches intently as Zwerling gives him a five-minute knitting lesson.

"So, between the pearls and the neck, that's the front door. In through the front door," she says, poking a needle through an opening in the row of gray stitches she has started for him. "Then skull and crossbones. Wrap it around...."

Mr. Butler has come hoping to make something for his 3-year-old daughter. He has been behind bars her whole life, and says he wants to make her a blanket so she'll have something from him to hold. Zwerling asks his release date. 2015, says Butler.

"Then you have time," she says matter-of-factly, pointing to the gap in his growing rectangle of yarn. "In through the front."

Zwerling made her career selling used cars at dealerships around Baltimore, while she and her husband raised two kids. Often the only woman on the lot, she buzzed with energy, outselling most of the guys. When she retired in 2007, she needed a project.

"I worked only with men," she says, "so when I retired, I said: 'Oh my god, I don't have any girlfriends. What am I going to do with myself?' "

She had recently learned to knit, so it occurred to her to start a knitting group at a local bookstore. Nobody showed up the first week. But then a trickle became a flood. The group soon outgrew the bookstore, ballooning to nearly 600 members. They meet weekly, chatting about families, recipes, and vacations – while churning out sweaters.

Zwerling liked the kaffeeklatsch atmosphere. But not as much as she likes a challenge. She saw how knitting and a supportive environment had fostered connections between people from disparate backgrounds.

"And I thought: "It's calming, it's creative; anyone can do it. I wanted to go someplace that it was totally off the wall."

JPRU is a squat, yellow facility about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The halls are noisy and full of men. When Zwerling met Chippendale, then Jessup's facility administrator, she brought an infectious, almost manic enthusiasm about the idea of these felons making yarn dolls and pompom hats.

"I told her: 'Everybody wants to knit; they just don't know they do,' " Zwerling recalls.

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, 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."

Mothering the "bad boys," as the women jokingly call their knitters, and exposing them to new ideas and strategies for self-control, comes naturally to both of them. "We tell them: 'Bring your best self,' " Ms. Rovelstad says. "And we have been rarely disappointed."

Jessup's Knitting Behind Bars program is too recent to have had a quantifiable impact on the recidivism rates of its participants. Rovelstad and Zwerling have heard from about a dozen who are out in the world and doing well.

But the program's most measurable impact may be the changes in participants while they're still incarcerated, a degree of tranquility that spills over into the rest of the prison.

"It's a different atmosphere with them working with Knitting Behind Bars," says facility administrator Michele Jones, who runs Jessup today. "I guess it's more of a calmness." 

Assistant facility administrator Charles Cave agrees. "With the guys that are in this program, the level of communication is better than with any other guys in the facility," he says.

Harris, who is due to be released this winter, says he'll miss Zwerling and Rovelstad when he leaves Jessup. When he gets out, he says, he's planning to join their knitting group.

Harris hasn't told a soul on the outside that he's learned to knit. He imagines his friends and family when they find out, begging him to make things for them.

He's looking forward to telling them: "Let me show you how you can make your own."

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