Knit Your Way Out of Jail

Every now and again I do some odd online searches. My most recent venture took me to articles published in numerous international newspapers all focused on one topic: how a Brazilian jail uses knitting to reduce jail time.

Yes, you read that correctly.

A view of the prison Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

A view of the prison
Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

A maximum security prison, Arisvaldo de Campos Pires, located  100 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has offered its inmates a new way to earn early release. The convicts – who include armed robbers and murderers – get a day off their sentence for every three days spent knitting.

The designer entering the prison facility.

The designer entering the prison facility. Photo by Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Raquel Guimaraes checks on the inmates while they knit her designs. Photo by Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

It all began back in 2009 when Brazilian fashion designer Raquel Guimaraes had trouble finding knitters for her Doiselles label, which specializes in knitting and crochet work. She approached the prison system and started the Flor de Lotus (‘Lotus Flower’) Project. The initiative is a chance for prisoners to earn money while serving their time.

Participating inmates are paid a starting salary of 75% of Brazil’s minimum wage. A quarter of what they earn is put aside, and paid on their release. More than 100 prisoners have participated in this program over the past 4 years.

The prisoner's work appearing on the fashion runway. Photo by Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

The prisoner’s work appearing on the fashion runway. Photo by Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

The inmates' hand-made work is sold in around 70 stores in Brazil, as well as being exported to America, France, and Japan.  Photo by

The inmates’ hand-made work is sold in around 70 stores in Brazil, as well as being exported to America, France, and Japan. Photo by Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

This put me on the trail to find out if there were similar programs elsewhere in the world which led me to this story. Last year, UK Knitwear designer Brandon Mably, who designs for Vogue Knitting and Rowan Yarns, and who on occasion collaborates with Kaffe Fassett, taught hardcore prisoners, including murderers and rapists, how to knit at Wormwood Scrubs, a west London men’s prison. His knitting classes all had waiting lists.

He got involved with this program through Fine Cell Work, an organization founded in 1997 by Lady Anne Tree, daughter-in-law to famed interior designer Nancy Lancaster, who owned the design firm of Colefax and Fowler. It took Lady Ann decades of lobbying the Home Office to get the program started.

More than 60 Fine Cell Work volunteers teach a variety of needle arts including knitting, embroidery, needlepoint, and quilting to more than 450 prisoners per year in 29 prisons across England, Scotland, and Wales. Dame Judi Dench and Kaffe Fassett are patrons of this organization.

The prisoners work on private and public commissions and also sell their work through the website and at fundraising events. They are paid for their work receiving approximately 37% of the sale price of each piece. About 100 hours of work goes into each item. Prisoners’ work has been commissioned by prestigious institutions and personages including:

  • The Victoria & Albert Museum
  • English Heritage
  • Tate Modern Museum
  • National Gallery
  • Duchess of Cornwall and Prince of Wales

A couple of years ago, Fine Cell Work commissioned a research report giving an in-depth, qualitative evaluation of its program. The research was conducted at 5 prisons in England and Scotland. The report yielded some interesting information. As a result of working in the Fine Cell Work program, prisoners achieved the following benefits:

  • Improved mental health and social skills.
  • Promotion of a calm state of mind.
  • The passing of time productively.
  • A strong sense of achievement, pride and self-confidence.
  • A more positive outlook on their future post-release.
Indianapolis Re-Entry Educational Facility prisoner working on his Super Bowl 2012 scarf.

Indianapolis Re-Entry Educational Facility prisoner working on his Super Bowl 2012 scarf.

I also found an article about a group calling themselves the Naptown Knitters. A group of prisoners at the Indianapolis Re-Entry Educational Facility learned how to knit scarves. These scarves were to be given to the 2012 Super Bowl volunteers. One prisoner had this to say about knitting, “This is a calm and peaceful thing in a place like this.”

Closer to home and also in 2009, Columbia, MD resident and retiree Lynn Zwerling began teaching knitting to inmates at the Pre-Release Unit in Jessup, Maryland. Since then she has taught the craft to over 100 male prisoners. The program is called Knitting Behind Bars. It took Zwerling nearly 5 years to get approval to bring this program to Jessup.

Though many inmates were reluctant to learn, once in the program all participants experienced the zen of knitting. The prison’s assistant warden, Margaret Chippendale, believed the men involved get into trouble less often. I’m not sure if this is still an active program. The latest information on it I could find was from last year.

Here’s a video about the program that appeared on ABC News.

Robben Island was a South African prison from the late 1700s to 1996.  Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison here. It is said that prisoners’ favorite way to pass the time was to practice their purl and rib stitches. Getting those stitches perfect became a game, like a sport, and rallied these men together as well as providing some much needed solace.

Teaching prisoners how to knit is not a new thing. It seems someone had this idea nearly 100 years ago. What are your thoughts on this topic?

Library of Congress: Prisoners knitting in Sing Sing, 1915

Library of Congress: Prisoners knitting in Sing Sing, 1915

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5 Responses to Knit Your Way Out of Jail

  1. Lenna kennedy says:

    I think this is a great idea. I would be glad to help is something starts locally.

    Like

    • Jayne says:

      Lenna, I wish I knew the status of the Jessup program. Anyone have any info? Are you thinking of working on a Baltimore City program? Anyone else interested?

      Like

      • Claudia Cortese says:

        I will try to find out by calling the institution. I think it would be a great way to help inmates.

        Like

      • Claudia Cortese says:

        Yes, they still have it. I am waiting for a call back from Case Management with the details. They mentioned something about background checks, so that must be a prerequisit to getting into the bowels of the building and actually dealing with inmates. Will check back in when I get the info.

        Like

  2. Kate says:

    I would love to participate as well.

    Like

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