Soft side to hard time: Green Bay inmates knitting for babies, veterans

Published: Aug. 24, 2017 at 4:04 PM CDT
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A group of inmates at Green Bay Correctional Institution wants to show the world that there is a soft side to people who are doing hard time.

Newborns, children, and veterans are benefiting from a donation of warm accessories and blankets knitted by a group of inmates at the maximum security prison.

Action 2 News was invited into the sewing room for an exclusive look at how this program is changing lives.

The room is located on the basement level. Tables are full of hats, scarves, blankets, and bibs that are ready for donation.

"I think crocheting was usually for old people. So, I seen other guys around here doing it and I'm like, well maybe it's not for old people, maybe it is like a masculine thing. So I ended up doing it," one inmate told Action 2 News.

Every day, the inmates crochet and knit. Their fingers are focused on delicate work, creating tiny hats for newborns at Bellin Hospital, and bigger ones for elementary school kids in the Green Bay Area Public School District.

One inmate said, "I imagine how people get one of these items and think, wow. But do they really know where it comes from?"

These men want to show people why they're doing this.

"That gave him a sense of pride, a kind of sense of purpose to give back to a community that he probably destroyed or infractured, so it kind of helped him give back to the people that he probably did wrong to," one of the inmates tells Action 2 News.

He's a tutor at the mainstream unit, a specialized program for 25 inmates with medical or mental health issues, and cognitive disabilities.

"One kid was so happy that he got something," he says. "He was like, yeah, look at my new hat and new scarf. And it make me so proud to have somebody like my work."

Corrections Program Supervisor Michelle Haese says the project makes the inmates feel like they're part of something bigger.

"That group atmosphere is something they most likely did not have when they were out in the community, so they really feel a part of it down here," Haese says.

Prison staff keep a close watch to make sure knitting needles and equipment stay in the sewing room.

But the focus is on the therapeutic benefit--a way to keep inmates out of trouble.

"The sewing project allows the inmates to use their creativity," says Jamie Wortell, social worker. "It kind of helps relieve some of the stress that they have."

Teacher, Ms. Thanos, agrees. She teaches several subjects, and helps the inmates work on life skills. "They love the idea that it's actually contributing something, and I hear them talking, asking, 'When is the next bunch of hats going out?'"

Handwritten thank you notes line the walls of the sewing room. It reminds the inmates of the value of their work.

The inmates have crafted thousands of pieces over the last six years, and will soon expand the project. They'll be knitting hats for veterans undergoing chemotherapy.

"I've been locked up since I was 15, so as you get older, you kind of figure out what's your purpose. What can you do? Down here, it kind of gave me a sense of meaning," one inmate tells Action 2 News.

Ali Knight is the team leader for the Kress Family Birthing Center at Bellin Hospital. She says the hospital is thankful for these donations for the babies.

“We are fortunate to receive regular donations from throughout the community, including those from GBCI. We are grateful for these generous community partners and all they provide for the babies born at Bellin and their families," Knight said in a statement to Action 2 News.

If you would like to give to the program, you can send your donations to:

Green Bay Correctional Institution

Attn: MU Program Supervisor

2833 Riverside Dr.

PO Box 19033

Green Bay, WI 54307-9033