Knitting Behind Bars, Learning Focus And Patience

One Maryland prison is seeing a waiting list for inmates to get into a weekly knitting class. Participants of 'Knitting Behind Bars' learn how to make hats, dolls and other small items. The program's co-founder, Lynn Zwerling, talks with host Michel Martin about how knitting has benefited prisoners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up: when we marry, most of us promise to love one another in sickness and in health, but how many of us expect to have that vow tested early in a marriage with young children to raise and a whole life left to live?

We'll dig into the pages of the Washington Post Magazine to speak with a woman whose family life took a remarkable turn after a tragedy. That's coming up.

But first, we want to go back to the question we started with this hour, life behind bars. Many people have different ideas to make life behind bars more bearable or to help inmates gain or recover the skills they need to live on the outside. How about teaching them to knit?

Lynn Zwerling has started a program called Knitting Behind Bars. It's a weekly knitting class for men who are incarcerated at the minimum security prison in Jessup, Maryland. That's roughly outside Baltimore. Every week for two hours, men gather to learn how to knit and eventually create hats, dolls and other items. The program now hosts a full class every week and has a long waiting list of those wanting to join.

The co-founder of the program, Lynn Zwerling, joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome.

LYNN ZWERLING: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So what gave you this idea?

ZWERLING: Everyone always asks that. I really don't have an idea. I think what happened is I saw what knitting does for other people. For me, for a lot of women that I know, it's very relaxing, it's very empowering and I thought, if I could take this program to a population of people who never, ever experienced it and if they could feel the benefit, the Zen of knitting, that it would be a great thing.

MARTIN: And I understand that you actually approached every prison and jail in your vicinity and they all said no.

ZWERLING: They all said, men don't want to knit. But, you know, Michel, I'm a used car saleswoman. I'm a saleswoman, and I just didn't...

MARTIN: You mean that literally? You used to sell cars?

ZWERLING: I mean that. I mean that literally and I never got a hard no. They never said, do not ever call me again. So I just kept at it for about five years.

MARTIN: Five years?

ZWERLING: Five years. I really felt it was important. I felt that the incarcerated population is huge and the guys that we're working with right now are going to be out, are going to be released. So it wasn't a population of inside and outside, but I felt that this was a transition.

MARTIN: What was your hope of what would happen when you brought knitting to people behind bars?

ZWERLING: Well, my co-founder and I, Sheila, feel that...

MARTIN: Sheila Rovelstad.

ZWERLING: Sheila Rovelstad. We feel that knitting provides everything you need to do, everything you should have learned in kindergarten. 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.

MARTIN: How did you answer the question of men don't want to knit?

ZWERLING: I said, they want to knit. They just don't know they want to knit.

MARTIN: OK. Well, and here's the sticky question. You know, knitting needles in the wake of 9/11 were, for a moment, banned on planes. I mean, I'm not quite sure how people are working that out now because there was a feeling that they could be used as a weapon. What about that?

ZWERLING: Well, my most important thought about knitting needles as a weapon is - someone who knits is not going to be violent. For a man to cross over that border and to join a knitting group, he's already identified himself as someone who's open, who's ready for change since it's not considered to be a man's kind of hobby.

The other thing is, is Sheila is charged with managing all the supplies and she checks in every single needle and checks out every single needle, and I believe that the men in our program respect us so much that they might consider stealing from somebody else, but they're not going to steal from us.

MARTIN: Well, let's get down to the brass tacks now. You've been running this program now for how long?

ZWERLING: We've been running this program for two years.

MARTIN: For two years. And you have found very quickly that it filled up. Were you surprised by that? That people really were interested in doing this?

ZWERLING: It was surprising because I believe that it's hard for a man to cross over that threshold. If we were teaching a GED class or Alcoholic's Anonymous or even a church group, they would know what to anticipate. But knitting - I mean, that's really off the wall.

MARTIN: So what have they told you about why they are interested in this and why they are so passionate about it now, which they are. As we mentioned, there is now a waiting list to get into your class.

ZWERLING: Well, I think one of the things that adds to the passion of our knitting is many of these men don't have any visitors, so here's their opportunity to interact with us, two just regular women. One actually said to us, it's like being at Starbucks down the street with you. You're just the ladies down the street.

So I think about sociability and to practice their appropriateness. Here, they've been incarcerated. They've been crunched in an environment with other like-minded men and protecting themselves at all time and never being able to really expose themselves for who they are. And I think this is a little practice politeness.

We ask of them to bring their best selves and without fail, they have brought their best selves. We are rarely disappointed in any of the guys.

MARTIN: You have some certain rules. No profanity, no roughhousing, no nicknames.

ZWERLING: No nicknames.

MARTIN: Presumably no gang names.

ZWERLING: No gang names. No violent language. We ask them to treat us like they'd like to be treated themselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Lynn Zwerling. She's the co-founder of a program that teaches men who are incarcerated to knit. So how is their knitting?

ZWERLING: Their knitting's great.

MARTIN: What have they come up with?

ZWERLING: Well, we control the projects because it's a pre-release unit and so the guys come and go. So at first, we did these - this is great - we did these little dolls. They were called comfort dolls and they were just actually just a rectangle. And then they were sort of sewn together and fidgeted around and fooled around with and faces were put on them and we called them comfort dolls.

We gave them to first responders in Baltimore County and they use them when there was a domestic violence disturbance. It's the kid who's always hurt the most. He's yanked out of his bed in the middle of the night. No pajamas, no blankets, no book of his own. And the first responders put this doll in the children's hands and they find that, number one, they can control the child and the child is then comforted.

MARTIN: So the inmates were making dolls to give to children, to give so that the first responders could give them to the children?

ZWERLING: Right. And the inmates said to us, oh, wow. That was us. We were the kids that were in the middle of that. So it struck a very personal note and then we moved into hats because we felt that if they could knit flat, they could knit in the round, so we talk about how to knit in a round. And many of them - the first hat they make, they make for themselves, or for children; children of theirs, children they haven't seen in maybe 17 years, children that they realize that they're missing, they're lacking.

We love that this hat making has connected many of our men with families that have been totally alienated.

MARTIN: Well, where do you want to take this?

ZWERLING: I knew you'd ask that. I don't know. One of the things that we found...

MARTIN: Your scarf is fabulous, by the way.

ZWERLING: Thank you.

MARTIN: And also, your co-founder, Sheila Rovelstad is here with us, too, and she also has a fabulous scarf, which I presume you knitted. Two very different styles, which is nice. So where do you want to take this?

ZWERLING: Where we want to take this - one of the places that we'd like to take this is we want to continue. We want to build a good rapport with this particular facility. It's in our backyard. One of our best knitters is from our neighborhood. He went to school in the school system that our children went to school in. So we feel very personal about it.

Another place that we've - so we'd like to, you know, keep established at Jessup. Other jails have asked us since to come and we kindly refuse them. We feel that our consistency, showing up every Thursday night, is vital to our core group.

The second thing that we'd like to do is we'd like to build an association. We'd like to build a coalition with likeminded people. You would be surprised, Michel, how many people have contacted us and said, well, we want to do this. We want to do - how did you do this? Tell us about your five-minute knitting lesson.

I got a call from a woman who is a vocational therapist at Folsom Prison and she said, oh, how do you get the yarn in? I can't get yarn in. So people have raised their hands and shown us interest and we'd like to build an association where we could teach the lessons that we've learned to other likeminded women, or men, who'd like to start programs like this of their own.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted.

ZWERLING: Well, I will.

MARTIN: Lynn Zwerling, along with her friend, Sheila Rovelstad, is co-founder of the program, Knitting Behind Bars and she joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Lynn, thank you so much for joining us.

ZWERLING: Michel, thank you so much for having us.

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