When you are living life behind bars, one of the biggest challenges is finding different ways to spend your time in order for the days to go by a little bit quicker. I was lucky enough to have money to buy a television, so I was able to burn a lot of hours by watching movies and sporting events.
There were also times when I would read, walk the track at the rec yard, or put together a puzzle. But, one of the most popular ways to pass the time behind bars is arts and crafts.
I was not blessed with the arts and crafts gene, so this was not for me. However, for many people, arts and crafts were not only a way to pass the time, but a way to resocialize and participate in something meaningful, while learning how to focus and be patient.
The question for this blog post is: Can you knit in prison? The answer is yes! One of the most common craft skills, in my location, was knitting. I even paid my roommateㄧwho had mad knitting skillsㄧto make two blankets, and I sent them home as gifts to my niece and nephew.
Knitting was not just a hobby. For many people, it was a way to make money.
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While the rules vary in each prison, most involve some kind of arts and crafts program, including knitting. Some institutions even allow you to order yarn and knitting needles for personal projects that you could work on in your room.
This privilege did come with restrictions. You had to have a craft permit from your case worker to have these items in your possession, and there were limits on how much you could have at one time.
Our prison library had different knitting books with different patterns, so people made all kinds of things: blankets, scarves, hats, gloves, purses, hair accessories, and sweaters. If you had a craft permit, you could wear a knitted scarf, but everything else had to be sent home when it was completed.
Like I mentioned earlier, prisoners who really knew what they were doing could make some decent money with knitting as their hustle because people would pay to have different items made as gifts for friends and family members.
While some prisons do allow inmates to keep knitting items in their room or cell, the vast majority of knitting in prison happens in an arts and crafts program, usually coordinated by outside volunteers.
In Maryland, the Knitting Behind Bars program at Dorsey Runㄧa male facilityㄧis so popular, there is a waiting list. The Thursday afternoon class teaches inmates discipline, empathy, patience, giving, and a professional work ethic. At the same time, there is so much more to the program.
The hats the inmates make are donated to charity and a nearby public school.
“That’s their opportunity to be empathic. They say to themselves, ‘I used to be that kid going to school without a hat,’” says Lynn Zwerling, founder of Knitting Behind Bars. “I think the lack of empathy is a major reason we have criminals. If that was heavily reinforced, I think it’d make a major difference.”
At the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Missouri, there is a program called, Restorative Justice, where the inmates can knit or quilt blankets that are then donated to charity.
There are programs like Knitting Behind Bars and Restorative Justice in prisons all over the country. Not only do these projects help pass the time and serve the community, they also have a positive impact on inmates.
Studies show that arts education improves attitudes, reduces disciplinary reports, and leads to better participation in academic and vocational programs.
“We feel that knitting provides everything you need to do, everything you should have learned in kindergarten,” says Zwerling. “It teaches you how to focus. It teaches you how to make a task and meet that goal. It teaches you how to control your anger. And we felt that all of these skills are life skills, are job skills. These are skills that, quite possibly, many people in our society are lacking.”
If you are wondering about knitting needles being used as a weapon, that’s really not an issue because all tools in the arts programs are always counted and accounted for after every class. If your craft permit doesn’t line up when it comes to your personal stash, there are serious consequences.
So, there you have it. Yes, you can knit in prison, and it often leads to inmates learning life skills that they may have missed growing up. Or, they can just use their skill to make some cash and help out a fellow prisoner at the same time.
Have you ever volunteered in a prison arts program? Share your experience in the comments below.
Sources: Knitting Behind Bars http://blog.redheart.com/knitting-behind-bars/ Knitting Behind Bars, Learning Focus & Patience https://www.npr.org/2012/01/09/144904615/knitting-behind-bars-learning-focus-and-patience At prison, a knitting class that isn’t necessarily about knitting https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/2014/04/24/a814362a-ae0e-11e3-a49e-76adc9210f19_story.html?utm_term=.780f7a8543de The Impact of Prison Arts Programs on Inmate Attitudes and Behavior: A Quantitative Evaluation http://www.cjcj.org/uploads/cjcj/documents/brewster_prison_arts_final_formatted.pdf
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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