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Thread: Inmate Quilting Program

  1. #1
    Super Member QuiltswithConvicts's Avatar
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    Hi! My name is Kathy (screen name “QuiltswithConvicts). I am new to the Quilting Board. I have been asked to introduce myself and to tell about my quilting program.

    It’s not really mine, but I have been running the program for 8 years. I run a quilting program for men at a privately owned prison in New Mexico. I don’t know if it is the largest quilting program for men in America, but if it isn’t, it surely must be the 2nd largest! I like to brag on the men!

    The Inmate Quilting Program began in January 2002 with 8 Quilters. They were called “Quilt Techs” because the Programs Warden thought it sounded more masculine than “Quilters.” The Inmates at the Lea County Correctional Facility are all MEN!

    The Program quickly grew to 60 Quilt Techs and stayed at that number until recently when the numbers rapidly increased to nearly 200. There are currently 12 Production Leaders and 196 Quilt Techs.

    The quilts we produce are usually comprised of 4” squares sewn 10 squares x 10 squares. There are variations on this layout such as 2” squares and even the Tumbling Block and Hollow Cube patterns. This makes a 40” square or slightly longer) quilt that is the perfect size for an adult in a wheelchair. Most of the patterns we use are single quilt blocks done up in 4” square units.

    One of my favorite patterns is Carpenters Wheel. I brought it into the program when I first started 8 years ago. I thought they’d like it because it sounded masculine and has such a wonderful geometric design. Card Trick is another. My assistant has designed several blocks – such as “Andy’s Revenge” and “Headache.” I designed one called “Flight to Freedom” based on “Andy’s Revenge.” I wasn’t thinking about their release as much as I was the fact that the design looked like birds in flight.

    Andy’s Revenge was in response to an incident where the Inmates were rebelling against piecing triangle units. They would come to us and state that their kit was short “x” number of squares in a certain fabric. We caught one Production Leader taking a large bag of 4” squares back to his pod for the quilters to substitute. I fired him. He went on to go to Barber School and I even let him cut my hair! His was the best cut I’ve ever gotten in decades! He is now a licensed barber in the state of New Mexico. All this is behind us. He has turned out to be an excellent quilter on a personal level. Anyway, Andy’s Revenge is mostly triangles, as are Flight to Freedom and Headache. There are several others which also have tons of triangles.

    I’ve included several pics of the patterns that go with the quilt pieces. I think you should be able to read the different names. As you can see, some are a single quilt block with a border. The inmates are supposed to lay out the entire quilt top to make sure all the pieces are there as soon as they get their kit. The colors aren’t necessarily the colors of the fabrics in their kit, but as a guide to the pattern.

    Originally the quilts were all donated to nursing homes, but the recipients have grown to include day care centers, police, fire departments, ambulances, sheriffs’ offices, and any other place that can use cuddle size quilts. We donate around 1000 quilts per year. They have gone all over the place. We just sent 150 quilts to the National Organization – Good Samaritan (nursing homes) for a sea-tainer being loaded to ship to Zimbabwe, Africa.

    The Quilt Techs are the “worker ants” in that they produce the quilts. When they are hired as a Quilt Tech, they are given a basic sewing kit containing black and white thread, several types of needles, a thimble, straight pins and pin cushion, needle threader and a white pencil for marking dark fabrics. They are also provided with a 4” square, 4” half-square triangle, and 2” square templates. They are issued a Scrap kit consisting of 40 – 4” squares, 80 – half-square 4” triangles and 80 – 2” squares. The fabrics are pretty mixed up – it’s a scrap after all! The Inmates can sew these pieces together any way they want. Most will set everything out and develop a pattern. Some will just sew pieces together.

    They are given 13 working days to hand-piece a 40” by 40” square quilt top. They turn it in to get batting and backing fabric. They then have 21 working days to hand-quilt it. When they are finished quilting the top, they turn it back in to have the binding sewn on the edges. Then they have another 5 working days to sew the binding down on the back of the quilt. They have deadlines to keep them working and on time. Without deadlines, most of them would never finish anything. If they are late turning in for one step, they do not get an extension on the next step. They just have to work harder to get it finished by the original due date.

    The Quilt Techs are hired at the rate of 40¢ an hour and their work week is 25 hours. They can earn up to 50¢ per hour after 2 raises over a 12 month period if they meet the criteria for a raise – mostly good behavior. They work in the dayrooms of their Pod (cell block) or in their cells. There are 5 Pods with either 58 or 66 men in each for a total of 306 men in the house. Because they work in their cells, they get paid for every day they are supposed to work, including holidays or lock-downs. It’s the best job in this housing unit.

    All the “behind the scenes” work is done by the Production Leaders. They cut fabric up into the pieces needed for the patterns of the quilts to be sewn, assemble fabric pieces into kits of either patterns or scraps, and make the binding and sew it to the quilted quilt. They earn from 50¢ - 60¢ per hour with a 25 hour work week.

    There is a list of about 40 Inmates waiting to become a Quilt Tech. It takes about 1 year to get hired. These Inmates don’t really go anywhere to open up slots for others.

    There is quite a competitive nature to the Quilt Techs. Each Tech wants to out-do the next Tech with their quilting skills. Egos here are very inflated. Can be difficult to deal with in some of the Inmates and some don’t like having a woman telling them what to do or criticize their work. Some Inmates will rush through the different phases of construction and the work looks like it. There are a couple of games played back here – Dungeons & Dragons and Magic, The Gathering, and these guys would rather play than work. I have developed ways to deal with them over the years. There is always the threat that they will lose their job. They know there is a long waiting list to get hired!

    Below is a pic in which I think you should be able to see the hand quilting. This was a scrap kit before we included triangles and before we finished the edges with binding. This quilt was “burped.” I didn’t think “birthed,” as Eleanor Burns calls it, was right for men. I could just hear the snickers!

    Below is a pic of some of our quilts. This was taken last year at our annual Quilt Festival. The venue is a museum and not exactly the greatest place to view quilts due to the lighting. Galleries are designed to highlight one item per lamp – not a whole room full of quilts. Because this is a small town – 27,000 – we don’t have a lot of places to exhibit. The Western Heritage Museum has been hosting our Festival for 3 years now. The quilts hang for a month, as it is so much work to hang a show that we were asked if we would let our quilts hang for that long. We agreed. There are several ladies who aren’t willing to part with their quilts for that long, but we do just fine anyway. These quilts were sold as a fund raiser for the Museum - $20.00 each. The cards on several of the quilts tell the story of the program. It’s always fun to be around when someone is reading the cards as I don’t put that these are men making these quilts. It’s about half-way through. You can tell when they get to that part as they do a double-take and start talking to each other. You’d think this was a church as quiet as people are in there!

    On Wednesday mornings, I go into the Pods to the inmates so that they can sign their timesheets and get re-stocked on any supplies they are running low on or have broken. I check their progress on their quilt and answer any questions they might have. For new quilters, I closely inspect their stitches and offer hints to improve their technique. They can also turn in their finished quilts. They prefer to do this instead of turning them in to a Production Leader when it is finished - egos again!

    The Quilt Techs can re-stock on supplies they have run out of. If they need a needle, they must give me back the old one, a new spool of thread -empty spool. I also keep track of supplies used for each inmate. Some need a new spool of white thread every week - I tell them "No" that they can't use our thread for personal things such as fishing lines.

    On Tuesday & Friday mornings, the Production Leaders come out to the quilting room to work cutting kits, adding backing & batting or apply binding. They call off all the quilts that need something to me so I can credit the inmate with having finished a phase. I keep track of timeliness and send back "You're Late!" memos if needed. This works with some and not with othere - those who know better than anyone else. One of those types found himself with a write-up and a loss of Good Time for that month.

    I know this is long an there is so much more, but I don't want to overload the system. :-) I'll be glad to answer any questions you might have.


    :) :) :) :)

    Inmate quilts hanging at 2009 Festival of Quilts
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    Patterns for Quilts
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  2. #2
    Moderator Jim's Gem's Avatar
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    What a great story and a wonderful thing you are doing with these inmates!!!
    It is great that they are giving back to the community!

  3. #3
    Super Member GrammaNan's Avatar
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    You are an amazing person for doing this. I can visualize a bunch of goatee'd burly men with tattoos sitting around and sewing. It makes my heart smile. I have been into the federal prison here in Denver and have seen that the convicts were all someone's baby once and there is a soft side to most of them. I don't know if there is any way that I can help support this program, I have limited resources at this time, but let me know if there is anything that I can do to help support your program.

  4. #4
    Super Member Butterflyblue's Avatar
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    Wow, that's a really interesting program. How did it get started?

  5. #5
    Super Member QuiltswithConvicts's Avatar
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    GrammaNan, please don't fret over wanting to support this program. The facility is a profit-making one, so there are $$$ for our supplies.

    Yes, these guys are someone's baby, and some of them are still babies - spoiled & self-centered. If they were doing drugs earlier, their maturity stopped then. They are that age mentally and won't ever grow up more.

    All inmates are people first and inmates second. They are in prison because they made some wrong choices, some of they horrible decisions. Their penalty is incarceration. I try to bring a little sunshine into their lives each day. Sometimes all it takes is a smile and an acknowledgement of them. I just have to say "Hi!" to make them smile. Of course, hiring them to be aquilter makes most of them smile even wider!

  6. #6
    a regular here MegsAnn's Avatar
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    That's great! How's it run, financially? By donations?

  7. #7
    Super Member beachlady's Avatar
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    Great thing to do for them. I like the quilts and it is nice that they are donated and put to good use.

  8. #8
    Super Member QuiltswithConvicts's Avatar
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    Butterfly BLue:

    These guys are in the Protective Custody Unit. This means that they are stuck in their Housing Unit all the time, except for trips to the Medical Unit which they are escorted and the hallways are cleared of all other inmates.

    These inmates can't get out to work in the kitchen or laundry or the like, but the Programs Warden knew that they need a jobs program which paid more than being a Pod Porter. Pod Porters are the janitors of the cell blocks. There are 306 men in a Housing unit. They are divided into 5 different Cell Blocks - we call them Pods. The porters get paid 20 cents per hour to clean the floors and the showers.

    The Programs Warden was, herself, a quilter. She proposed to the Senior Warden this program. He was sure they wouldn't want to do any such thing, but she could go ahead and try. She posted the job & 8 inmates jumped at the chance. In 1 month, there were 60 Quilt Techs hired. The quilting program stayed at 60 Quilt Techs until about 18 months ago when we grew to 130 and about a year ago we jumped to 200+.

    At first, she was buying the fabric at WalMart, taking it home and cutting it into 2 1/2" squares and packaging it into baggies. This became too much for her, so she advertised for someone to run the program. My BFF was here in New Mexico from Milwaukee when the ad in the newspaper appeared. I thought I would like to do that, but didn't want to take any time away from BFFs visit, so put that thought away. That was in June. In August, another ad appeared and this time I went for it. I was hired in the Lobby when I showed up for the interview!. She took me straight back into the prison to meet the "boys."

    BTW - that Senior Warden is now the Secretary of the Department of Corrections for the State of New Mexico, and as you have seen, that program is alive and kicking! This fellow wants 200 quilts every Christmas for a birthday party for a lady here in Hobbs. She has been throwing herself a party every year for who knows how long. All invitees are expected to bring gifts that will benefit the children of Hobbs. Cool, huh?

  9. #9
    Super Member QuiltswithConvicts's Avatar
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    The Coorporation that owns the prison and the state Department of Corrections fund it. I had to figure how much the payroll was for the past 3 years. It was about $55,000.00 each year and another $2000 per month for fabric and supplies. Costs them a bundle, but the payroll would be paid regardless of the job. State pays the payroll.

  10. #10
    a regular here MegsAnn's Avatar
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    How do the inmates spend their money?

  11. #11
    Super Member QuiltswithConvicts's Avatar
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    They buy canteen, hygene, music downloads for their MP3 players, games, hobby shop supplies, personal quilting supplies, personal clothing items such as sweats, send it home.

    They get from $45.00 - $75.00 a month - not all that much in the grand scheme of things, but they're happy to get more than the porters do. They get about $25.00 per month.

  12. #12
    Lady Shivesa's Avatar
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    Kathy, I just wanted to say I think you're doing a wonderful work. God bless you and all those who got this project started! :)

  13. #13
    Super Member quilterguy27's Avatar
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    How amazing! I'm concerned they would keep the needles and whatever other items they could get their hands on and use them for weapons. I really hope that doesn't happen. I love it when I hear stories like this.

    I am visually impaired and I have a seeing eye dog. When researching the prospect of getting a dog I considered getting one trained by inmates. That is also a great program. Although, I opted for another organization they do great work with animals!!.

    Congrats on your program. I'd wish you luck but it sounds like it's been going on for years and is doing well and you don't need donations because it's a profit based program.
    So... All I can say is GREAT JOB and ROCK ON!!!

  14. #14
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    This was fascinating to read! Thanks for posting about it.

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    What an awesome program, we don't think about inmates doing things like quilting! Your story amazes me, I hope it continues on, the quilts they make are great, and I am sure that it does give them something to do. Hats off to you for doing this, and thank you for sharing the story with us today.

  16. #16
    Super Member dglvr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lisainmo
    What an awesome program, we don't think about inmates doing things like quilting! Your story amazes me, I hope it continues on, the quilts they make are great, and I am sure that it does give them something to do. Hats off to you for doing this, and thank you for sharing the story with us today.
    Ditto. Thats great. Thanks for posting :thumbup:

  17. #17
    Super Member cherylynne's Avatar
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    You are doing a great service. Although these people are incarcerated they are helping others.

  18. #18
    Super Member wvdek's Avatar
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    What a great service and program.

  19. #19
    Power Poster Lacelady's Avatar
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    Kathy, thanks for going to all the trouble telling us about the quilt program you are involved in. You are doing a great thing there, and not only does it enrich the lives of the inmates, but all those who have been recipients of their quilts. It's fantastic!

  20. #20
    Power Poster CarrieAnne's Avatar
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    I think its great what you are doing. Its nice that these guys are able to do something productive with their time, instead of just sitting.

  21. #21
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    What an amazing story.Thanks so much for sharing. Keep up the great work!!!! You are truly making a difference in these men's lives.

  22. #22
    Super Member dphelps's Avatar
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    Such an awesome program. You are indeed a HERO for keeping this program going. I know these men must feel some sense of acheivement and delight in seeing their finished products/creations.Have they put all of you on TV yet? What a great story to tell.

  23. #23

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    I am amazed at reading about your program. I have never even thought that this would be possible. Quilting sure does bring the best out of people. It joins people at all levels. Thankyou for sharing and may this continue and grow.
    Colleen

  24. #24
    Super Member skydiver70's Avatar
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    What a great program. You are to be commended for this effort. You are making a difference in the lives of all these men. In return, they are making a difference in the lives of the individuals who receive their quilts.

    Keep up the good work. What a difference one person can make in the lives of others.

    Thanks! for sharing.

  25. #25
    Honey's Avatar
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    God bless you and all of your work. If a good friend had had a program like yours to look forward to, he might not have taken his own life while incarcerated. If teaching someone to quilt can turn around even one life, it is successful.

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