Handmade in Prison: Part One – The Teachers

by Weeks on 23/10/2006

in People, Quilting

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This post has been six months in the making and proves that you never know where life will take you. In this case it took me to a quilting class at Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth just outside of London. This experience changed forever how I see quiltmaking and all because I read a post on Whipup! This is the first of two posts on this experience and I hope these posts will encourage Whipup’s readers to think about about crime, punishment and craft in new ways.

How It All Started

Last Spring I read a post on Whipup about Fine Cell Work, the 10-year-old, London-based organization that teaches needlework in nearly 400 prisoners in 22 prisons in England and Scotland. Having written my master’s thesis on the role of gardens as therapeutic and job-training devices in a women’s prison and having been a professional quiltmaker for the past seven years, I was fascinated by their work. We had a business trip planned to London so I emailed them asking if I could be of some help to them during our trip. I thought perhaps that we could donate fabric, teach a class, somehow support them. We decided through a series of emails that Bill and I would meet with the teachers at Fine Cell Works’ offices and that I would attend the Tuesday night quilting class at the men’s prison while Bill stayed at our flat with our daughter.

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The Teachers
The best way of telling you about the character of these volunteer teachers and the Fine Cell Work staff would be to say that if I were on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, I would want these women in my lifeboat. They’re smart, capable, fun, compassionate and optimistic.

Each goes to a men’s prison once a week to teach prisoners how to make quilts entirely by hand. They also work with the Fine Cell Work staff to sell the needlepoint and applique pillows and quilts at various locations in England. The teachers have differing approaches to the process but they all believe that offering someone who is at the lowest point in their life a chance to make something beautiful is worth their time. They do not ask the prisoners the circumstances of their incarceration beyond “Will you be here a long time?” To them it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the prisoners find the work improves their self-esteem, helps them cope with their situation, calms them as they try to overcome addiction in some cases, and prepares some for the bleak future that awaits many of them when they are released. To a non-crafter this may sound absurd, but to those of us who have experienced the transformative power of making things, it is easy to understand. The teachers report that some prisoners save the money they receive from the sale of their quilts through Fine Cell Work for accomodations upon their release while others send proceeds to their families, who are the unintended victims of their crimes.

The teachers gather donated fabrics and designs for new quilters to learn the basics, while prisoners with more advanced skills sometimes work with the teachers to design their own quilts. Sometimes patrons of Fine Cell Work commission a specific design with specific fabrics which are then purchased for the project. Aside from the time with the teachers once a week, prisoners do the needlework in their cells in the evenings after they have finished their prison work. The teachers invest a tremendous amount of time and energy preparing for each prisoner’s needs and are sometimes frustrated that a prisoner is moved to another prison in the middle of a project.

I asked the teachers what motivated them to teach prisoners needlework. They answered that most of the prisoners seemed to have lacked encouragement in their childhoods. After being praised for improving his quilting technique, one prisoner told a teacher, “No one has ever told me that I did anything well before.” The teachers know that the prisoners have committed terrible crimes, but they also believe that people can change. The quilting class is voluntary so only prisoners interested in learning show up.

“Have you ever felt threatened?” I asked the teachers. One teacher said that she feels anxious walking from the entry of the prison to the classroom, but that she never feels any anxiety around the prisoners she is teaching because she knows them so well. Another told a story of being in the prison one evening and hearing a tremendous amount of banging. She could tell that periodically there were a lot of prisoners banging on their cell bars. She thought a riot was about to take place and asked the guard what was going on. The guard explained that there was a World Cup football match being broadcast and that the prisoners were banging on the bars when their team scored a goal. The teachers and staff all laughed at this story but were aware that it could have ended differently.

I’ve added these women to my list of personal heroes. Bill and I gave them each some of our books and fabric, but that doesn’t seem like nearly enough. We’re going to keep in touch, maybe offer to donate some designs if they’re interested. I just know this isn’t the last we’ve seen of each other.

Next post: Part Two – Quilting Class in the Prison

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sidney October 23, 2006 at 12:15 am

wow – it sounds like quite an experience, can´t wait for you to post the second part! I wasn´t aware they have a program like that but now that you wrote about it it makes total sense that it exists! I wonder if they have classes like that in other countries… or if only HM´s prisoners are lucky enough. Did you take more pictures of the quilts? I hope we get to see them in your second post!!!

2 Barb October 23, 2006 at 1:20 am

What an inspiring story. So many heroines and heros out there! Lovely.

3 filambulle October 23, 2006 at 4:21 am

Thank you Weeks! This is a VERY interesting post. I am looking forward for the second one.

4 wilsonian October 23, 2006 at 6:23 am

What a beautiful story, on so many levels…

5 beverly October 23, 2006 at 8:15 am

Thank you for sharing this story. I taught in a women’s maximum security facility for a year, and it was the most satisfying teaching I’ve ever done. I had a similar experience. I told a young woman that her writing was good, that I was interested in what else she would write. She asked me to repeat myself twice. Then she told me that no one had ever told her she was good at something. It’s heartbreaking. I love the idea of teaching needlecrafts. This was inspirational to read.

6 admin October 23, 2006 at 12:37 pm

Weeks,
what a wonderful post – I know how you have been looking forward to this trip and going to the prison, I am so glad that is was everything and more that you expected. I cannot wait to see pt 2 of this story, and hope to see some of the prison quilts and prisoners quilting in action (if possible).
Thank you

7 emily October 23, 2006 at 8:28 pm

I wish there were more programs like this in America…seems all we do is cut off rehab programs of any kind. Very inspiring story.

8 Edie October 24, 2006 at 7:49 am

inspiring… and yet I know many people resent any kind of “life improvement” opportunity for prisoners. The attitude is: they’re in jail because they did something bad, so why are they getting to do something fun/educational/positive?
And I counter with the statement that, people are in prison because, for some reason, they didn’t know what else to do. They either didn’t have the personal resources, education, or good examples to follow, and made a terrible mistake. To keep them from returning to prison, they need to acquire those personal resources, education, and good examples.
I have thought of trying to do this kind of thing in my local jail, but time constraints, and I must admit, fear of the more violent prisoners, has kept me from volunteering. Also, in my state, the attitude at the jail seems to be that these people don’t deserve to be treated like people, but somewhat worse than the dogs & cats in the animal shelter (I got this impression from personal experience w/the way my ex-boyfriend was treated while in jail for a DUI).
I am also wondering how, in the program described, how sharp objects are handled? Do they allow prisoners to have scissors, needles, & pins? I can’t imagine that in the jail I’m familiar with, that they would allow prisoners to have that kind of thing, so the only time they could sew would be when the teacher is present.

anyway, it’s an interesting post, and I too am looking forward to reading more.

9 Rebecca October 26, 2006 at 10:03 pm

Thank you everyone for leaving such positive feedback on Weeks’ post and on our work at Fine Cell. We we thrilled to play host to Weeks and Bill (and their extremely well behaved daughter Sophie, 5 who angelically sat in the office for over 2 hours whilst we chatted!) Both Bill and Weeks were giving of time, advice, books and their wonderful fabrics, and we are thrilled that they enjoyed their visit.

Our success is reliant not only on the fleet of wonderful volunteers that travel into UK prisons weekly to teach our stitchers and those that help us here at our London offices but also on the word of mouth provided by all those who enthuse about our project and offer to help in a plethora of ways.

Sites such as whipup.net really do help to spread the word, provide a forum for discussion and a space in which crafts experiences can be shared. So thank you to Weeks and for all of you who have expressed messages of support to us. I really do hope that more programmes like ours at Fine Cell Work emerge throughout other parts of the globe, the benefits really are something, if anyone has any queries or question about our work then feel free to write to me direct at : rebecca@finecellwork.co.uk

In the meantime, here’s to part two of Weeks’ account!

Kind wishes,
Rebecca

10 Pauline John October 27, 2006 at 2:47 pm

What a fantastic overview of the teaching in prisons. very good publicity. I like many of the teachers are proud of not what we do but was the prisoners do and the amazing creativity of many of the prisoners

11 Lesley George December 2, 2006 at 1:11 pm

How amazing – I teach crafts at women’s prisons in Australia and for some reason, sitting here in the cool – as it is 42C outside – I typed in “teaching craft in prison” and voila – this site came up
I understand your thoughts about the situation completely. At the moment with Christmas nearly here I feel so much for all the children of these women that I see each week
I will post more at a later date, but was just so thrilled to find someone else who can understand how much the women and I get out of the experience
Best wishes to you all,
Lesley

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