Monday, 25 November 2013
Robben Island is an island in Table Bay, off the coast of South Africa, that holds a former maximum security prison, where political prisoners and convicted criminals were incarcerated between 1961 and the 1990s. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. Kgalema Motlanthe, who also served as President of South Africa, spent 10 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner, as did current president Jacob Zuma. A book called The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island, which documents the things political prisoners did to deal with the frustrations and boredom of prison life, includes a chapter on knitting.
One of the prisoners, Jerome Maake, had been taught to knit during the days before his arrest in the early eighties, when he couldn't leave the safe house where he lived for fear of police apprehension. His hostess, a professional knitter, taught him to knit to give him something to do. Once imprisoned, he requested wool and needles from the prison authorities, who were reluctant to comply at first but were eventually convinced that Maake wasn't going to knit a bridge to Cape Town, though he had to settle for plastic rather than metal needles. Other prisoners asked to be taught once they saw Maake at work. He taught many of the other inmates the craft. In the evenings the prisoners would visit one another's cells, and take their knitting. “Sometimes there would be four or five of us sitting there knitting,” says Maake. The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island contains pictures of some of the items the prisoners knitted.
The BBC video reports on Robben Island knitting as well as some of the other activities the Robben Island prisoners used to pass the time during their sentences.
Wednesday, 12 June 2013
When Raquell Guimaraes, a Brazilian fashion designer, needed to boost production for her clothing line and couldn't find the skilled workers she needed, she turned to prison inmates at the Ariosvaldo Campos Pires. The prisoners were taught to knit and crochet and made Guimaraes's designs for export abroad. In return they received 75% of the minimum wage in Brazil and one day off their prison sentence for every three days they spent knitting. Twenty-five percent of the money the prisoners earn is set aside for them to have the day they are freed from prison. The program has been in existence since 2009, employs about 20 prisoners, and seems to have been a success.
I've written about knitting in prison before, when I posted about knitting classes in a Maryland prison back in December 2012. Since then I've learned a little more about vocational and educational programs in prison, and penal system budget allocation. I do think knitting programs such as the Maryland prison knitting class and the Ariosvaldo Campos Pires knitting shop are successes, but rather than advocate specifically for more knitting programs in prison, I would like to see more educational and vocational programs in prisons in general, and to see them tailored to suit current workforce requirements. Knitting is a wonderful hobby but, realistically, it won't lead to livelihoods for very many prisoners. It won't pay a living wage and no one's hands will stand up to the stresses of knitting 40 hours a week for very long. It can certainly be one of the skills taught in prison, but shouldn't be the only one or the most emphasized.
Many prison inmates lack any real education or job skills. My research tells me that something in the neighbourhood of 60-70% of prison inmates in Canada, U.S., and the U.K. are functionally illiterate, and that educational and vocational programs are the best tools we have for ensuring that prisoners will lead a productive and lawful life once they finish their sentences. Prisoners are often avid to learn new skills, because they're so bored and miserable that even things they would normally never have considered, such as training seeing eye dogs or translating books into Braille, sound like an attractive option, and then once they know how to do something useful that they enjoy doing, they want to keep doing it. And yet, at least in the U.S., only something like 5% of prison budgets is spent on such programs, and they are the first things to go during budget cuts. This NPR article on California's Folsom Prison is interesting if you'd like to learn more about this matter.
According to this New Yorker article, there there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in the U.S. (more than six million) than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. Canada has only about 38,000 people in custody, but our penal system is only an improvement on that of the U.S. in terms of scale, not in nature — our recidivism rates seem to be just as high, and Canadian prisons have a worse record than that of the U.S. in certain other issues. Over 90% of North American prisoners will go back to prison once released unless they are taught the job and life skills and given the mental health and substance abuse treatments they need to be useful, self-supporting members of society. Helping prisoners to lead better lives would not only be the humane thing to do and make our society safer, but would also save us an astounding amount of tax dollars... and yet it isn't happening.
No one listens to prisoners or ex-prisoners, and the prison service industry has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. It's up to the general population of a society to work towards and insist upon a penal system reform. Knitting classes or workshops involving 20 men each are wonderful and heart-warming to read about, but they are only a tiny step in the right direction.
Coming up: Look for the Petite Purls Issue 15 review tomorrow.
Friday, 14 December 2012
I'm so upset tonight by what I've been reading about today's shooting at a public school in Newtown, Connecticut, by the horror of all those deaths, by my own dully resigned sense that even something horrific as this will not get the States to change the way it treats the mentally ill, regulates gun ownership, or reports on and addresses problems in the media, that I decided I wanted to do a "good news" post about how violence can be addressed. And since this is a knitting blog, of course this meant I had to find material on how knitting could be used to decrease violence. You may be surprised to read that I didn't have to look far. I googled "knitting violence", and the topic for this post popped right up.
Two retired women, Lyn Zwerling and Sheila Rovelstad, have initiated and implemented a program called Knitting Behind Bars at a prison in Maryland. They approached every prison in the area with their idea for a knitting class, and all the prisons refused except the last one, where the prison authorities skeptically agreed to let them try it.
And the program has been a success. As the Baltimore Sun wrote in a November 2011 article,
Men literally beg to get in. There's a waiting list.... They want it so much, in fact, that they're willing to be good in order to do it. [Prison warden Margaret] 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."
One prisoner, who was serving time for stabbing someone and who was busily knitting a hat, told a reporter, "My mind is on something soft and gentle. My mind is nowhere near inside these walls."
Zwerling talks about why she thinks knitting classes are beneficial in an NPR interview described here. She believes that knitting teaches patience, discipline, anger management, and goal orientation, all important life skills that many criminals may be lacking. And some lessons in basic social skills can be shoehorned in at the same time. Zwerling and Rovelstad insist on good behaviour from the men in their knitting classes: no swearing or rough housing, and given names are to be used rather than prison nicknames.
The men in these knitting classes have made little dolls that first responders in Maryland now carry to give to children at scenes of accidents, fires and other tragedies. They've made hats and scarves for their own children, for their mothers or grandmothers, for themselves. And at least some of them have said they are continuing to knit upon their release from prison, or intend to.
Are knitting classes some magical solution for violence in prisons and the heartbreakingly high recidivism rates among released prisoners? Of course not. Real change, especially change at the extent and scale of change that is needed in the prison system and among convicted criminals, is gradual and requires a holistic approach. It will take more than Thursday-night knitting classes to rehabilitate those who have been unable or unwilling to earn a living without resorting to crime, or to help those who can't relate to others without violence. But it's an idea that has been tried and is showing a demonstrable level of success. These knitting classes have given some of the criminals in one prison useful skills, some peace of mind and innocent enjoyment, a sense of pride and competence, and a way to give to others.
Knitting Behind Bars has its own blog where you can read about the program and, since Zwerling and Rovelstad supply all the yarn, needles, and other tools and supplies needed for their classes, you can make a monetary donation to their program if you wish. Unfortunately, because of lack of storage and other logistical issues, Zwerling and Rovelstad are unable to accept donations of yarn, so if you were hoping to unload your stash, you'll have to find another charity to ship it to.