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A stitch in time while doing time in Britain

London – Cushions delicately embroidered with roses compete for attention with bedspreads covered in playful kittens. The loving work of a doting grandmother? In fact, they were made by hardened prisoners.

Inmates in British prisons – mainly men – have taken up embroidery to pass the interminable hours behind bars, and many have soon found themselves engrossed by their new hobby.

Some even claim that stitching has helped chase away suicidal thoughts.

“It gives you a purpose. And some pride,” said Richard, one of the prisoners who has benefited from Fine Cell Work, an organisation which gives inmates lessons in needlecraft and sells the products they make.

Richard – under British prison rules, his real name cannot be revealed – likes nothing more than settling down in his cell with the balls of thread and needles donated by the organisation.

He soon found that his new interest grew into a passion.

“When I started something, I had to get it done,” he told AFP in a phone interview.

Richard and his fellow inmates were delighted when their handiwork was selected to feature in an exhibition of embroidery opening in March at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “We thought: wow!”

Even tattooed ‘big blokes’ are soon lost in concentration if they volunteer for Fine Cell Work’s lessons, Richard said, adding in a faintly mocking tone, “They look tough enough but they do some beautiful stuff.”

In a letter to the organisation, a man serving a life sentence recounted how he had unexpectedly discovered the joys of embroidery when a fellow inmate who often helped him obtain cigarettes and tea pleaded with him for help.

“He explained how he’d broken his glasses and needed to finish a pattern he was sewing for the in-cell charity course.

“Although I class myself as being very butch and sewing is so very feminine, I figured I owed him, so I agreed to help him finish his work.

“He showed me what it was I had to do, I made him promise not to tell anybody and I hid it in a cupboard in my cell.

‘They’re busy and occupied’
“About nine o’clock I got it out and started sewing. Before I knew where I was they started unlocking us for breakfast, a whole night had come and gone with no thoughts of suicide, and no tears of melancholy.”

Fine Cell Work was the brainchild of Anne Tree, who had the idea when she a prison visitor in the 1960s.

The organisation’s executive director Katy Emck said up to 3,000 inmates in 26 prisons have taken part in its courses since they were launched 12 years ago.

Many prisoners are locked in their cells for 17 hours a day and around half are even denied the pleasure of reading to pass the time because they are illiterate.

So it is perhaps hardly surprising that the embroidery initiative “immediately took off”, Emck said.

She recalled her first meeting with prisoners. “I was quite nervous. There were 30 men in the room and I asked them, ‘Who would like to do tapestry?’ And all the hands went up. ‘Yeah, we want to do it!’ I was kind of amazed.”

Some 80 percent of the participants are men and each ‘stitcher’ spends 20 hours a week embroidering, but that can rise to 40 hours.

The inmates get a share of the profits from the sale of the items they make, although it amounts to no more than “a few pounds a week on average”, Emck said, but most argue that money is not their motivation.

“I would have undertaken the piece for free, because it gave me a feeling of making a positive contribution,” explained one prisoner busy at work on cushions with a pattern based on a 12th century design.

“Making something good can help them feel themselves not as criminals but as creators, as worthwhile people,” Emck said.

She said prisoners would not be allowed to take part “if they are considered a danger to themselves or others”, but the courses are run on a voluntary basis and “there has never been a problem”.

Emck said participants in the Fine Cell Work scheme behave well in prison.

“(They) don’t get into trouble, they’re busy and occupied, they stop fighting when they start doing this.”

Just in case, the embroidery teachers are equipped with a whistle to alert the guards if an emergency arises while they are giving their lessons. But none have ever had to use it.

AFP / Expatica
Photo credit: Wolfiewolf