Knitting Behind Bars weaves an unlikely partnership

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."

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, 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."