COTTONWOOD, Idaho — If not for the high chain-link fences topped with concertina wire, the guards and the multiple locks one must pass through to get anywhere, this might look like any ordinary home economics classroom.
A couple of gigantic clothes dryers tumble loudly in the prison's laundry, warming the room to a homey ambiance. Inmates, some perched at sewing machines, others spread-eagle over a long table cutting denim fabric into squares, put together pieces of several quilts that will soon be delivered far beyond these prison walls.
In the two years inmates at North Idaho Correctional Institution have been making quilts as part of a service learning project, about 75 have been distributed to St. Vincent de Paul, YWCA, Project Hope in Moscow and the Region II Juvenile Detention Center in Lewiston.
"We try to give enough to them each year that when a kid leaves he can take a quilt with him," said Emmett Wilson, a prison staff member who is in charge of the quilt project. "We can get rid of them as fast as we can get them made. So it's just to help people."
Two of the quilts designed with the mascots of University of Idaho and Boise State University are being raffled off to raise money for Project Compassion - an employee organization at the prison aimed at raising money to help out fellow employees in times of need. Tickets for the raffle cost $1 each, and Wilson said the drawing will take place Friday.
There is no colorful patchwork or fancy stitching on these quilts. All of them are made from recycled jeans, coats and other clothing used by the inmates or donated by the organizations the quilts help support.
The Best Western hotel in Moscow donated old white tablecloths the inmates will use for Christmas stockings and other projects.
And the quilts are unfilled. Wilson said there is no money for expensive batting.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of the project is in the way it helps these inmates - most of whom are being incarcerated for three to six months - gain a different perspective on themselves and what they want in life.
"It just gives you a sense of worth, doing something worthwhile," said 39-year-old Titus Smith of Lewiston. He is near completion of a term for felony injury to a child and intimidating a witness and is also the team leader of the other inmates for the quilt project.
"These quilts are going to help somebody," he said. "They're going to a good cause. They're going to be used by people who need them."
Smith said many of the inmates who work on the quilt project have no sewing background, but often possess other skills, such as drawing or design that can be utilized in the final product.
The team gets together to develop a theme for the quilts and then each member is assigned a task, which they work on throughout the day. Smith said there have been times he's worked 10 to 11 hours a day to finish a quilt for which there is an immediate demand.
In the meantime, as inmates cycle out of prison, new ones take their place and Smith helps train them for the project. Since he plans to be paroled soon, he is in the process of training other inmates to take his place.
"Prison diverts your life, it really does," Smith said. "This is a big timeout for me."
"I don't know if I'll be a sewer when I get out, but there's definitely something like a Zen to be had in running a sewing machine," he added. "It really helps the time go by."
Cole Berry, 33, of Nezperce, is one of the few inmates who have experience making quilts. It was something he did as a kid, he said, growing up in Nezperce and helping the ladies of St. John's Lutheran Church with their projects.
"It's relaxing. It's a stress reliever," Berry said "It's just brushing up on sewing I've been doing my whole life."
He is spending a term in prison for domestic battery and battery with intent to commit a serious felony. Prison, he said, is depressing, but being involved in a service project such as this one helps.
"It's just nice to be able to give back to the people that's here and show that there's more than just being in prison," Berry said. "We're actually doing something."
Christopher Whipple, 40, of Meridian, said each quilt takes 60 to 200 man hours to complete, depending on the intricacy of the design. He is spending a term for felony violation of a no-contact order.
"It's really a team effort," Whipple said.
The inmates know the quilts will be used by those who are less fortunate, so Whipple said they try to include inspirational themes like college logos ore religious symbols, or scripture that has resonated in their own hearts.
"So there's some thought and detail that goes into it and we're all pretty proud to be part of this. Not just working in the laundry but giving back," Whipple said. "It gives us a sense that we're still connected to everybody out there."
Wilson said the prison gladly accepts donations of fabric and other materials the inmates can use to continue making quilts. Anyone wishing more information about the project may contact him at (208) 962-3276.
Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com