Inmates learn social skills through knitting
07/02/2010
Montgomery County Sentinel

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Photo by Maite Fernandez. Lynn Zwerling, 65, shows how to knit to Sam Phillips, 24, (left) and Kevin Ennis, 29 (right) at the Jessup Pre-Release Unit, Jessup, on July1. Zwerling created the group Knitting Behind Bars, which teaches inmates how to knit as part of their rehabilitation.

Jerome Johnson can't wait to get out of prison. He hasn't seen his four daughters since he was arrested and convicted for bank robbery, 15 years ago.

He is 52, and is going to be released in eight months. He knows that his daughters are full grown women now.

And he said all this without taking his eyes out of his crocheting.

Johnson and 19 other inmates at the Jessup Pre-Release Unit are part of Knitting Behind Bars, a rehabilitation group that teaches inmates how to knit. But the group offers more than that.

During the two hours that they get together every Thursday the 20 inmates talk with the three volunteers about the books they're reading, their families and what are they going to do once they get out.

“Knitting gives you anger management, goal orientation, self-confidence, pride… all the things you need to know in life in order to be successful,” said Lynn Zwerling, a 65-year-old Columbia resident who created the group.

Four years ago, Zwerling retired from her job. She had been a car saleswoman for most of her life. “I didn't know what to do with my life,” Zwerling said.

When she started the group in the winter of 2010, she had been knitting for two years, and knew how relaxing her hobby was. But at first nothing was easy: every jail she turned to rejected the proposal, arguing that it wasn't advisable to have knitting needles in a jail.

But after a successful trial at the Jessup Pre-Release Unit, an all-male minimum-security prison that has 580 prisoners, the Knitting Behind Bars program was born.

The inmates make knitted stuffed toys called “comfort dolls” which are given to traumatized children. The almost 40 dolls that are completed will be donated to a social services Program in Howard County next week.

Jerome Johnson and the other inmates are proud of the dolls they knitted, and they don't hesitate in showing them to anyone who wants to see them.

“I knitted these too,” said Ronald Lewis, 20, his tattooed arms lifting two multicolored knitted dolls.

Johnson likes to knit things a little bit different. He knitted a black, white and red drum, and he is now starting a white and black bear.

The dolls are named after the officials that work in the prison. The inmates base their naming criteria on one simple feature: the similarity between the doll and the officer's hair.

“This one right here is Sergeant Palmer,” said Johnson, pointing to a doll with black hair and a purple dress. All of them laughed while explaining the names of the dolls.

The inmates can joke about the dolls, but they can't swear, make racist remarks or be disrespectful.

“The group doesn't have any religious or philosophical orientation. The idea is just ‘shut up and knit,'” said Zwerling.

Another achievement that gives Zwerling pride is the new library created by her long time knitting group, Columbia Sip and Knit, donated more than 300 books to the jail.

Zwerling has established a trusting relationship with the group. She said that she doesn't know what these men did to be in prison and doesn't really want to know.

Johnson agreed. He doesn't know what his knitting partners did. For him, the group is a chance to get to know the person first, no matter what crime they committed.

The group also updates a blog (http://knittingbehindbars.blogspot.com/ ) so the families of the prisoners can see their progress

When Johnson told his daughters he was knitting they didn't believe him. His daughters have asked him to teach them how to knit once he is released.