During an inmate's first class, Zwerling, Rovelstad and a third volunteer will help him make a little swatch — nothing more than a few stitches worked back and forth. But before that new knitter leaves, the women will have him cut the yarn, taking care to leave a long tail. They'll tell him to carry the square in his pocket and if he gets upset, to pull the tail.
That first class wasn't easy for Raymond Furman, a 46-year-old from Washington who's serving a sentence for telephone misuse and stalking. Frustrated and unable to do more than a stitch or two without a mistake, he threw down his work and said, "I can't do this." But, he remembers, one of the women said, "Just relax. Let the yarn have its way."
Furman stayed put, kept at it and left that night with a little blue strip that he decided was a bookmark for his Bible. The next week he came back and started on a hat, that when he finished, he proudly wore around the prison yard. "The guys," he says, "were sort of impressed."
On that recent Thursday evening, Hopkins, Furman and about 10 others were working wool, side by side, the room nearly silent with concentration. Most of them were making hats for students in need at Baltimore's Arlington Elementary.
There's yarn of all colors spread along one table, as well as scissors, tapestry needles and pom-pom-makers — every last bit of which the women will have to account for before they leave the prison.
The women buy most of the group's supplies themselves, though on the knitting site Ravelry.com, they've set up a page where people can make donations of money or yarn.
Also, Rovelstad, who has a business hand-dying yarns where she names the shades after songs, designed one to benefit the program called, "I Fought the Law and the Law Won." She had people nominate color suggestions online, then brought the choices in to the guys for a final vote.
They chose a variegating stripe of three colors — blue for the sky, green for the grass and black — for the bars that keep them from enjoying either one.
It's Gary Ralph's last night. After spending nearly all of his 30s and 40s in prison for burglary, robbery, making and selling drugs and, most recently, for violating parole, the 52 year old was four days away from going home to College Park. He smiled when someone pointed out that he'd never finish the hat in his lap.
The former biker, still with long silver hair that falls well past his shoulders, has made about 10 hats. He's known for topping them with big, voluptuous pom-poms. He also knit his mother a scarf, part burgundy, part gold, with fringe at the ends. A Redskins fan, Ralph says she "went crazy" over it.
While working on all of those things, Ralph said he thought about home. He says he hopes he keeps knitting once he finally gets there.
"I don't want to go out anymore, doing what I used to do," he says. "I'd rather stay home, watch TV, sit there and knit."
Richy Horton, who's been out for nearly a year now after serving three years for assault, has kept at it. Now living in Beltsville and working for his brother's home improvement company, Horton, who's 38, says in his free time he goes fishing, lifts weights and reads. Every once in a while, in the evening, he also sits down to chip away at a beaded scarf he'd like to give his grandmother.
Knitting, he says, was the only peace he found in prison. In the jailhouse dormitories, no one really talked to one another, no one let their guard down, no one could be themselves. But in the knitting room, learning something new with women he could call by their first names — that, he says, felt real. And it felt good.
"Prison is just a dormant wait. You shut your life off and wait," Horton says. "But them giving you that chance to interact and kind of blend back into the world, it's a big deal."
Though Zwerling worries about the prison tiring of the program, Chippendale promises they have nothing to worry about. The knitting stays, the warden says, as long as the women are willing and the inmates interested.
Which is good for Zwerling's real goal — a half-serious plot to achieve world peace, one knit, one purl, at a time.
"You have to see it," she enthuses. "These big, tough, tattooed guys, knitting, with a look on their face of tranquillity and peace. It's magic."