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Knitting Behind Bars

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"Knitting Behind Bars is a program that took 5 years to get off the ground is now going strong after a lot of hard work and determination by Lynn Zwerling, and her team of volunteers. You might think the idea of prisoners sitting around knitting for charity sounds bizarre, but that is exactly what happens every Thursday night inside one of Maryland's correctional facilities. After retiring from her job, Lynn Zwerling had time on her hands and realized the calming power of knitting might be exactly the thing to help rehabilitate inmates in the local prison system. Surprisingly despite some initial resistance the program has succeeded against all odds.

Knitting calms the men, gives them peace of mind, gives them something constructive to do. Just like in any other knitting circle, the men have a chance to socialize, to share ideas, to use manners and interact with each other, and the women who teach them. No one is allowed to curse or call each other names when they are in Lynn's class. These men must be on their best behavior, some of them are even willing to give up dinner just so they can attend the weekly Thursday night 2 hour sessions.

Here is my Q & A with Lynn:

1) JO: What made you think of taking knitting to prisons?
LZ: I thought how amazing it would be to teach men to knit. It would be a population that knew virtually nothing about knitting. Also, I know how vapid a prison system is and I thought it a worthwhile investment of my time.

2) JO: How did you have the tenacity of not giving up when people kept telling you No?
LZ: I'm a retired car salesperson, so taking no is not an option.

Inmake learning to knit3) JO: How many other volunteers go with you to the prison?
LZ: There are three of us, three women of a certain age. We are in our sixties, myself, Sheila Rovelstad, and Lea Heirs.

4) JO: Is there a certain type of needle you have to take to the prison? For example, can you only bring wooden needles or plastic needles?
LZ: We use circular 16 inch size 8's and double pointed needles, plastic, wood or metal. The needles are not the issue everyone imagines. All our supplies are counted and accounted for every single session.

5) JO: Do the men prefer straight needles or circular needles?
LZ: Circular. These guys are big guys and the straight needles just didn't work out, so we even teach them using circulars.

6) JO: Does everyone work on the same project? Or can the men branch out and choose their own projects once they have the basics down?
LZ: We only make hats, sometimes for their own kids, but mainly for the kids in Baltimore who really need them.

7) JO: Do the men only know how to knit or purl, or do they know how to do intarsia or entrelac?
LZ: They knit, purl, do stranded knitting, and also add colors to their work just like other knitters.

8) JO: What type of yarns do you use?
LZ: We only use acrylic yarn. They insist on soft yarns. They like to use the Love Collection. We have yarn snobs!

9) JO: Where do you acquire your donations?
LZ: Truth be told we are self-funded, mainly as we cannot accept random yarn donations. We purchase new yarn and other supplies for this project. That way everything is pretty uniform, which is what the prison likes.

Lynn teaching inmate to knit

10) JO: It's amazing to me you can teach them with a 5 minute lesson. Are you teaching them long tail cast on?
LZ: We teach both the long tail and the knitter cast on. Each guy gets to choose which he likes better, just like knitters everywhere.

11) JO: Are the men allowed to keep anything they knit, or do they have to donate everything to charity?
LZ: Most is donated to charity, but they can keep or send their first ones home.

12) JO: Do any of the prisoners keep in touch with you or your volunteers once they leave prison and blend into mainstream society?
LZ: Yes, we have several guys we keep in touch with, only one who is an avid knitter.

What else would you like the Red Heart readers to know about you, your volunteers and the Knitting Behind Bars group?
LZ: Knitters are all alike and the guys who we knit with weekly claim the same benefits to knitting that others do peace of mind, joy at the completion of a piece of art. In the past 5 Ā½ years we figure upwards of 300 men have been taught to knit by Knitting Behind Bars.

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