Men with Quilts

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Chris Mottalini /
Left to right: Travis Canon, Christopher Maldonado, Patrick Starr, and Gerald Toahty display their handiwork.

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.

“You come in the door with a criminal mind-set and you have to separate yourself from that,” Starr says. “It’s a personal transformation.” But he admits how tantalizing the box is. “It’s like being a recovering addict,” he says. “To someone like me it’s more than a tackle box. It’s temptation.”

In a corner, Christopher Maldonado, 41, serving 22 years for assault on a police officer, armed criminal action, and endangering the welfare of a child, uses an X-Acto knife to cut a stencil. Sitting at another table, Gerald Toahty, 47, serving life with the possibility of parole for second-degree murder, smoothes out the wrinkles on a quilt before folding it up and placing it alongside a pile of others bound for charities like Backpacks of Love and Boys and Girls Town.

The quilts, constructed with donated fabric, average four by five feet. They are simple and spare, a look true to the circumstances; these men are self-taught. On one, a floral border frames two large butterfly silhouettes; on another two teddy bears, a bunny, and a puppy pile into a yellow rowboat. Sometimes the men try new techniques or a few scraps of brown corduroy. But the fact is these men have few privileges, and that extends to their creativity. Their job is to make quilts for foster children and the elderly, not to practice their log cabin technique. Giving back is expression enough, they say.

Toahty is the only experienced seamster of the bunch. He is Native American, and with skills passed down from his mother and grandmother, he is responsible for sewing fabric blocks together and closing up quilts once the batting and yarning are done. “I can hand-sew my butt off,” he says, proudly.

Down the hall, Travis Canon, 31, serving life without possibility of parole for robbery and first-degree murder, paints a picture of the Missouri State Penitentiary–the prison that formerly held JCCC inmates–onto a piece of fabric cut from a prison uniform. The painting will be sewn into a tribute quilt for the prison, which opened in 1836. Larger specialty quilts are often made for worthy causes. On one sewn last year, blocks constructed with army uniforms donated by JCCC staff surrounded a painting of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. This partnership fostered an unprecedented relationship between staff and inmates. “Their attitude changed completely,” one correctional officer interjected during an interview with inmates. “It was inspiration to them to have that fabric.”

Also unusual is the camaraderie among prisoners. Maldonado and Canon are white, Starr is black, and Toahty is full-blooded Comanche. In prison culture their friendship is unlikely. But in the quilting room these norms don’t apply. “We all have the same common goal,” says Maldonado, who attends church with Starr every Saturday.

Dave Dormire, JCCC’s superintendent, has seen firsthand the benefits of the quilting program, which receives no state funding for its projects. Compared to other facilities of the same and lesser security around the state, JCCC has the lowest rate of misconduct and violence. “We don’t have a lot of serious fights; we don’t have serious assaults,” he says. “It also makes [the prisoners] feel good. It is just win-win.”

Beneath a poster of a red circle with a diagonal slash though the word drama, Starr reviews the inventory of his tackle box. “It’s a job by itself,” he says. “Every needle, every scissor, every blade, and every screwdriver must be signed in and out and accounted for at all times.” In an incident last February, a box of needles went missing. Starr was held accountable and banished from the quilting room for three months. “It was 90 days of sheer brutality,” he says.

As I pack up and get ready to leave, Starr turns to me with the calm of a man who has repented of his past and reconciled with his future. “I am happy here,” he says. “People might not believe me, but I’m doing things here I never would have done.” As I drive down the hill, away from the razor wire and chain-link fences, I can’t help but notice that no signs line the way out.

To donate materials to Jefferson City Correctional Center, contact restorative justice coordinator Pamela Dunn

Excerpted from American Craft (June-July 2010), a bimonthly that celebrates “the modern makers who shape the world around us,” published by the American Craft Council, a nonprofit educational organization.

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