Saturday, December 29, 2012

Quilting in Prison

Quilting in prisons came up as a discussion on the Quilt Art list and Beyond the Barrier, a special exhibit at Sacred Threads, was mentioned.  Beyond the Barrier, special exhibit at Sacred Threads, was a one time and wonderful project initiated by Vikki Pignatelli at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. The chaplain ran the actual program but she did not actually teach the women to quilt even though she is a quiltmaker herself. Her role is spiritual. I think one important thing to know is that the women were not allowed to keep their quilts. They either had to pay for them to be shipped home (or wherever) or the quilts were put into storage.

For years while I was a volunteer with Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories(Q.S.O.S), an oral history project for the Quilt Alliance, I had tried to add interviews from inmates without success. I was very happy when in 2009 ORW and the Franklin Prelease Center in Columbus allowed me to interview six of the women who had participated in Beyond the Barrier and I did so over a two day period. You can read the interviews here. I was given a small grant to pay for transcribing the interviews. I personally paid for the rest.

One of the conditions from the warden was that I had to begin each interview by having the women explain why they were incarcerated. Before the tape recorder was turned on, I did explain to the women that this was not the focus of the interview and they did not need to go into a lot of detail. The assistant to the warden sat in on all the interviews conducted at ORW. The interview I did with Tangy Thomas at the FPC, I was alone with her.  I cried during almost all of the interviews. I did not require the women to hold an ID sign during the photography as was usually required by the Q.S.O.S. project. I wanted this to be as positive of an experience as I could make it.

ORW has the "Stitching Post" where women in the prison can work and earn money (15 cents an hour). I was impressed that everyone in the prison is encouraged to work.  One of the activities in the Stitching Post is making quilts for charitable organizations from donations from outside the prison. Some of the organizations provide batting and backs but most do not. The quilts are generally simple and minimally quilted. The focus is quick production NOT creativity or even precision. None of the women in the exhibition presently work in the Stitching Post. Other activities include crocheting, knitting and making special shirts for military personnel who have lost arms.

I still correspond with four of the women. Joy Major's conviction for murder has been over-turned. She always claimed to be innocent of the murder of her husband. She is no longer at ORW and the facility where she is now allows her to create personal quilts which she is doing. She is writing a book which she hopes to get published once she is released. Teresa is studying hard to get her GED. She passed the pretest with flying colors so I don't think she will have a problem. I see her confidence level increasing each time I hear from her. Rosa is in a drug program so that once she is released, she will hopefully not fall back on bad habits. Rosa is Mexican and will be deported the minute she is released. I have promised to help her as much as I can after her release because she lives in a very poor region of Mexico which was why she was dealing drugs in the first place. Michelle is trying to exercise to loose some weight and waiting for a transfer to a prison closer to family. Ronda (pictured with her quilt) will never be released from prison. She coaches a basketball team and sells her artwork to support mission work. I have found all the women to be open and honest about why they are in prison. All want to make a difference when they are released. Few have had many positive things in their lives. I try to be one.

I worked hard to get another project like Beyond the Barrier for the women at ORW without success. I am convinced that having these kinds of projects in prisons changes lives. However, I am acutely aware of the pain of the victims of their crimes as I have been contacted by a few of them.

Being in two different prisons was a real eye opener. ORW does not look like a bad place. There are gardens all around. However, the constant view of razor wire, crowding and lack of freedom was ever present. It makes me count my blessings.

Several people have asked me about sending messages to the women but not waiting to write them themselves. Just leave a comment and I'll send them for you. Thanks!


  1. I was struck by their work when I first saw it..and I continue to hope for good things for them.

  2. Lisa, You are too wonderful for words! My only hope is they get the support they will need once they are released. Hugs, Karen

  3. Your heart is as big as the have supported them in more ways than one... Happy New Year....may the coming year bless you and your loved ones with eveyrhing that your hearts desire together with laughter and joy!!!



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