ONTARIO — Photos of Snake River Correctional Institution inmates in the prison’s quilting program show burly men proudly holding up colorful quilts in a variety of patterns.
One photo shows a little boy splayed out on a sailboat quilt made by an inmate. Patsy Wilson, SRCI staff member and quilting program coordinator, said when the participants saw the photo, they all had tears in their eyes.
“These guys love it. The opportunity to create is very important to them,” Wilson said. “They take such pride in their work.”
The program began as a simple idea through a partnership between SRCI’s Corrections Rehabilitation Services section and Wilson.
Bill Doman, manager of Corrections Rehabilitation Services, had been participating in the prison’s quarterly meal preparation at Harvest House Missions in Ontario. In that program, SRCI staff provide and serve a meal to homeless community members.
Doman asked Harvest House staff what they needed most, and the answer was blankets.
After months of work, the SRCI Quilting Program was approved. The first class began in November 2014 with five inmates out of the 55 who applied.
The class meets once a week for four hours at a time, and the class lasts for 18 months. Wilson said they are very strict about who they choose to participate.
“They have to be of the highest incentive level, meaning they have been out of trouble the longest,” Wilson said. “We are very strict, because we can’t take any chances.”
According to information provided by SRCI, the inmates receive an orientation about security measures and the importance of following the rules. They learn how to properly cut fabric, create seams and use a seam ripper. By the third class, the inmates are working on their first projects, which range from crib-sized quilts to dog beds.
“They are all making the same pattern but going about it in different ways and using different colors,” Wilson said. “So they’re learning that one way is no better than the other.”
Wilson said the program helps teach the men patience, perseverance, attention to detail and other “skills that will make their lives better.”
Wilson said she asked participating inmates to write letters about what the quilting program means to them.
“To me the quilting program is many things. But most important, it has proven to be a way for me to give back to the community, and bring joy into a young person’s life,” David Klinepier wrote.
Special quilting cabinets were made by inmates working in the wood shop at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla. The cabinets have special locks and are kept in an area that is not frequently used. All tools are checked in and out and can be easily seen, so mentors can be sure all tools are accounted for.
“We have to account for everything so carefully,” Wilson said. “And no one leaves until everything is returned.”
So far, the quilting program has given away 17 quilts to community agencies including Harvest House, Treasure Valley Children’s Relief Nursery and the in-house hospice unit at SRCI.
The program, along with being a part of the Corrections Rehabilitation Services recidivism program, is also part of Oregon Corrections Enterprises. OCE works with the Department of Corrections to help provide opportunities for inmates to gain skills and to help them find jobs once they are released.
“The hope is that when they are released, they have skills they didn’t have before,” Wilson said. “It is part of this new. nationwide interest in restorative justice where we are reintegrating inmates into the community as lawful people.”
Wilson said she believes the program is important because it gives inmates the rare opportunity to be creative and make positive changes in a way they have never experienced before.
“The quilting program has meant the world to me,” inmate Shawn Steinbach wrote in his letter. “It’s more than taking a needle and thread to bits and pieces of fabric, it’s also helping me bring together the bits and pieces of my life and filling my heart with warmth, while giving me a reason to feel useful and worthwhile.”