Men with Quilts
Prisoners piece together their lives one square at a time
Left to right: Travis Canon, Christopher Maldonado, Patrick Starr, and Gerald Toahty display their handiwork.
Chris Mottalini / www.mottalini.com
The last bit of the drive to Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison nestled in a small valley about 10 miles east of the Missouri state capitol building, begs reflection: Its address is 8200 No More Victims Road, and its mission statement is clearly displayed on roadside placards that line the approach. The words effective, community, committed, accountable fly by like a patient hitchhiker down on his luck.
As you come over the hill, a sprawling mass of structures beckons. The roofs are a bright sky blue, the walls the drab hue of concrete, and yards of razor wire glisten in the sun like a mangled crown. Here, amid fences and steel doors, a group of male inmates quilt for charity, attempting to repair a fraction of the damage they caused.
They quilt, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week, as part of a program called restorative justice, an ancient practice turned curriculum that equates a crime committed with a debt to be repaid. The world was introduced to elements of it by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to heal the wounds of apartheid through conversation and confrontation between the victims of human rights violations and the perpetrators. In the past decade, restorative justice programs, which promote similar dialogues and reparative activities like quilting and gardening, have emerged in prisons and communities across America.
The men I met at JCCC, which opened in 2004, never imagined they would be sewing behind bars. Now, they say, quilting quiets their minds and helps rectify their pasts. They earn between $20 and $25 a month (a fraction of what they could earn making uniforms), but the act of giving back, although it is a veiled interaction with society, makes their lives relevant and brings rehabilitation within reach.
Behind six steel doors and one metal detector, Patrick Starr, a well-built man whose looks betray few of his hard 41 years, greets me with a smile. Starr is serving three consecutive life sentences plus 15 years for second-degree murder, armed criminal action, and attempted robbery. In Kansas City he was a gang leader and drug dealer. In the quilting room he is the office clerk and administrative assistant.
I watch Starr lean over a yellow tackle box, unlock it, and remove a pair of small scissors and a rotary cutting blade. Years before, he was the last person anyone would want manning a box full of sharp objects. Today, after five years on the job, Starr is the most trusted man in the quilting room.
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