Quilting unlocks possibilities for women jailed in Jessup


October 06, 2004|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TWENTY-FIVE handmade quilts adorn the walls of the central library this month. Library shelves serve as display tables for hand-crocheted baby blankets and hats.

Most of the quilts are in bright colors, some with images of baby animals, some in traditional Amish patterns, and others showing Spiderman and other characters beloved by children. Some are more unusual -- decorated with heartfelt poetry and messages from mothers to their children and children to their mothers.

All were made by women prisoners.

The quilts and children's clothes are on display courtesy of the Circle of Friends, a group of four women who volunteer three hours every week to teach quilting to inmates at Patuxent Institution for Women in Jessup. With the help of the Circle of Friends, inmates have made more than 400 quilts in the past five years.

All of them, except five that are kept for display, have been donated to shelters and other institutions that benefit women and children. The inmates are required to donate their work to charity.

"It's a prison rule," said Inge Stocklin of Fulton, the program's founder. "The warden said [that] they've taken away from society, so they must give back."

Although they are not allowed to keep their work, the women get a lot out of the program, said Peggy Tippett, volunteer coordinator for Patuxent Institution for Women. "It helps with their self-esteem. The women in here have not had the most positive upbringing. They feel better about themselves by learning a new skill; they recognize they are doing something positive by giving to someone else that's needy."

Stocklin has been quilting for 30 years. For nine years, she owned a quilting shop in Ellicott City, the Quilt Studio, where she sold quilts and taught the craft. In 1999, she closed her shop to spend more time with her grandchildren and went to work as an office administrator at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Stocklin felt she needed to do something more.

"I really believe we need to give back in life," she said. "I always wanted to teach quilting in a prison, but I was discouraged from doing it because of the equipment needed."

After closing the shop, Stocklin restored quilts as a home business. She was asked by Erin Shaffer, an administrator at Patuxent Institution for Women, to restore two quilts.

"That's when the doors were opened to me," Stocklin said. "She told me to submit a proposal. I couldn't believe how quickly it was accepted."

Now, nearly every Friday afternoon, Stocklin, along with Julia Graves of Burtonsville and Ellicott City residents Sandy McDonald and Kathy Babcock, carts suitcases filled with quilting books, patterns, fabrics and blunt-edged children's scissors to the prison. The scissors are counted on arrival and departure. Sewing machines are kept locked away on site.

Twelve inmates can join the group, and groups are rotated every six months. Many of the inmates repeat the program, Stocklin said.

"When we arrive, there are hugs all around," McDonald said. "We don't ever judge them. We listen to them and praise them all."

"Some of them have never threaded a needle before," Graves said. "Sometimes, if they make a mistake, they get very upset; we show them how to fix it. They learn they can get past mistakes."

"They can choose the color, the fabric and patterns they want to use," Babcock added. "They are in a situation where they don't have a lot of choices."

"Some women are amazed with the finished product," McDonald said. "One time, a woman in her 50s was so proud when she finished her first quilt, she held it up and said, `My mother won't believe I did this!' "

Quilting helps the women, many of them mothers and grandmothers, relate to their families.

"When one woman finished a Spiderman quilt, she said, `I have a grandson that loves Spiderman,' " McDonald recalled. "Some say, `When I get out, I'll sell quilts,' or `Someday, I'm going to make one of these for my daughter or grandchild.' It gives them something to dream about."

The quilts also help the children feel more connected to their mothers and grandmothers. At an annual family picnic sponsored by the institution, many of the children made squares with their handprints. Those have been made into a display quilt.

The women help choose which charity will receive their work. Quilts have gone to the House of Ruth in Washington, a homeless shelter for women and children; Sarah's House, a temporary shelter at Fort Meade; and Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.

"We operate emergency shelter programs," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots. "When people move out of the shelter to permanent housing, we give them a quilt as a housewarming gift to take with them.

"I had the opportunity to go to the ceremony where they donate the quilts," she said. "It's very touching to meet the women. Quilting gives them the opportunity to express themselves and give to others."

This year's work will go to St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville. It is the second time the organization will receive a donation of quilts.

"We serve abandoned, abused and neglected babies and young children," said the home's administrator, Sister Josephine Murphy. "We also serve pregnant and parenting young mothers. The quilts are used on the beds and on the floor for the babies. They are beautiful and well done."

She added, "People who give of themselves and their talents -- we are very grateful. We ask God to bless them."

Information about the library's exhibit: 410-313-7860. Information about the Circle of Friends: 301-490-3544.

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