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Itching to be Stitching: Airway Heights Inmates Donate Quilts

September 25, 2019

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

Men standing at tables with fabric

Incarcerated men at Airway Heights Corrections Center measure and cut fabric for quilts. (Robert Zakula, Recreation/Athletics Specialist at Airway Heights)

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AIRWAY HEIGHTS – Families experiencing homelessness, female victims of domestic violence, and teens in overnight shelters will be a little warmer, thanks to some inmates at Airway Heights Corrections Center.

A group of incarcerated men at the state correctional facility in Spokane County recently made 95 quilts from recycled materials and donated them to local charities.

It’s part of a quilting program at the facility. Inmates sew the quilts using old or worn-out clothing and bedding from the facility. Other fabrics and quilting supplies come from community donations. The program, now in its third year, has between 25 and 35 incarcerated participants. To date, inmates have made more than 180 quilts.

“The most rewarding part of this program is that it enables staff and incarcerated individuals to work toward giving back to local communities in need,” said Recreation and Athletics Specialist Robert Zakula. “It embodies teambuilding and craftsmanship toward a charitable cause, and redemption through the learning and teaching process of their projects.”

Airway Heights donates the quilts to a different charity each year. This year, the men donated the quilts to Volunteers of America and Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington. Volunteers of America runs programs for vulnerable people in downtown Spokane, including Crosswalk, an emergency overnight shelter for runway and homeless teens, and Hope House, a shelter for homeless women and victims of domestic violence. Staff and inmates presented the quilts to representatives of the charities during an event at the correctional facility.

Homeless people aren’t the only ones the inmates’ donations help. Quilting program participants use quilting scraps to make dog coats for canines in the prison’s Pawsitive Dog program. The Humane Society of Spokane runs a program in the facility that allows dogs deemed hard to adopt to live with inmates in their cells. Incarcerated men feed, socialize, and train the dogs until they are ready for adoption.

The program began in 2016 when prison recreation staff converted a storage area into a program shop that would support Sustainability in Prisons Project programs and recreation activities, Zakula said. The Sustainability in Prisons Project is a partnership between the Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College in Olympia and allows inmates to lead environmental sustainability programs in all of the state’s prisons.

The facility also has three to five community volunteers who taught the first group of inmates in the program the basics of quilting. Over the years, the first group of program participants have acted as mentors and taught those new to the program skills like sewing, measuring, trimming and ironing material, inserting batting (insulated material) and “tufting” (using thread to add dimension to the quilt while reinforcing the layers).

Participants volunteer for the program and work on the quilts outside their job and academic education requirements. To be eligible, participates remain infraction free for 90 days and have completed the Sustainability in Prison’s Project’s “Roots of Success” environmental literacy class or the Redemption project. The Redemption Project’s goal is to prevent people who are incarcerated from committing new crimes after release. Redemption Project participants participate in group discussions, listen to testimony from other inmates, and do activities that help them understand the impact their crimes had their victims and wider-reaching parts of the community.

Zakula says activities like making quilts can improve safety. It reduces idleness, teaches problem-solving skills and nurtures creativity. It also teaches inmates accountability by having them follow a project through to completion.

“Staff and volunteers inspire the quilting participants to do better and care more, imparting wisdom, feedback and guidance,” Zakula said.