Knitting Behind Bars weaves an unlikely partnership

With needles, wool and attention, a Howard County retiree teaches prisoners how to cope after release

  • Organizer Lynn Zwerling helps inmate Phillip Jones of Baltimore as he learns knitting techniques during a session of Knitting Behind Bars.
Organizer Lynn Zwerling helps inmate Phillip Jones of Baltimore… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
November 21, 2011|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

Lynn Zwerling speaks of knitting the way others talk about yoga or long distance running or even particularly potent cocktails. It's life-changing, she'll say. Mind-altering. Zen. The Columbia retiree doesn't care if she's making a hat, a sweater or a scarf. It's just the way she loses herself in the lightly clicking needles, plush wool and repetitive motion.

Zwerling, who's 67, took up knitting after retiring from selling cars, quickly becoming an evangelist, more enthusiastic than skilled. She started a knitting group that swelled to nearly 500 members and then — surprising everyone she knew — announced that she wanted to teach men in jail how to knit.

"I just knew it would work," she says. "I thought I could give a calming influence to people who really need this. I'm not a social worker. I'm not an educator. But I thought what it takes to do knitting are skills vital to human existence — setting goals, completing a project, giving to somebody else.

"And I thought, maybe when they get back in the world, these men might choose to be calm and do something worthwhile. But I'm a dreamer, you know."

Defying every expectation, Zwerling's Thursday night program, Knitting Behind Bars, has become in two years the most exclusive club at Jessup's Pre-Release Unit, an all-male, minimum-security penitentiary in Howard County.

Men literally beg to get in. There's a waiting list. And no one's more surprised about that than the assistant warden who couldn't help but harrumph when Zwerling told her she wanted to teach inmates how to make stuffed dolls and woolly hats. Every other prison in the area had already turned her down.

"I was like, 'Mmmm, I don't know," says Margaret M. Chippendale, the prison's warden. "I just had a hard time trying to grasp that an inmate that might have committed a violent crime or been a gang affiliate was going to want to sit in a room and knit."

But they did. And do.

They want it so much, in fact, that they're willing to be good in order to do it. Chippendale has noticed lower rates of violence among the men who knit. "It's a privilege to be in that program," Chippendale says. "It's something that matters and they don't want to do anything to be removed from it."

On a recent Thursday, George Hopkins hunched in a chair, grimacing in concentration, pushing a needle through a loop of wool, wrapping it with yarn, then deftly tucking it under, through and around — again and again, over and over.

The 54-year-old from Baltimore, in prison for stabbing someone, had settled into a knitting-induced reverie. He was halfway into a hat and, just as Zwerling suspected, entirely transported.

"My mind is on something soft and gentle," he said. "My mind is nowhere near inside these walls."

That first night at the prison, Zwerling went alone. A grandmotherly figure who cuts her graying hair short and who likes to wear her own brightly colored creations, Zwerling stepped through the metal detector, held her arms out for a pat down and endured disapproval over her underwire brassiere. She says she wasn't scared, not even for a minute.

"We were very naive," says Sheila Rovelstad, a 61-year-old avid knitter who joined Zwerling at the jail not long after that first class. "At first we didn't know enough to be afraid."

They thought the guys were fundamentally good fellows who perhaps made "some bad choices." But soon enough they realized that these were men who had beaten people, written bad checks for thousands of dollars, and in one case, kept someone locked in a room. One was a child abuser. "That one was hard," Rovelstad says.

"They are criminals," she says. "Most have hurt someone in some way. These are not good boys. But we've become fond of them."

Both women will tell you they know boys. They raised their own. Zwerling's sons are 31 and 34. Rovelstad's son died in 1999 in an accident while he was attending Florida State University.

"We understand how easy it is go astray. It isn't that we had bad boys," Zwerling says. "But we had boys."

In the bare, plain classroom that's become the knitting room at the prison, the women lay down firm ground rules. No roughhousing. No coarse language. No prison nicknames. "Bring your best selves," they say.

If one of the men steps out of line, Rovelstad finds herself telling him, "We don't do that in this family." It's the same thing she'd tell her own kids.

For the sessions that run two hours every Thursday evening, the men do seem to bring their best selves. They shower. They put on clean clothes. When they walk in, they peel off their skull caps and greet the women respectfully. Before they leave, they'll call out things like, "Drive safely" and "Have a great week."

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