One my earliest memories as a child is that of my father making ornaments out of tin cans, much like this one:
This was in Brazil, early 1960′s. My father was volunteering at a local jail where he was teaching the inmates how to make ornaments out of old cans. I must have been three or four years old and even at that age, I remember being surprised that prisoners would be allowed to handle sharp tools.
Twenty years later, I spent a semester at the Lutheran seminary in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. One of my friends and I also volunteered at a local jail. Although we did not teach crafts, I remember how excited the men were to see us every Saturday morning.
I’ve maintained an interest in prison art and believe that it provides a window to recovery, self-discovery and so much more! As our art programs are disemboweled in our schools and communities here in the United States, I see it thrive elsewhere and was delighted to learn about Fine Cell Work in the United Kingdom. Not only does needlework provide a healing function in the lives of those who participate in this wonderful program, but the quality of their products is also phenomenal! We often see good intentions translated into boring, icky things that should never have been made and that people will only buy because they want to help out. Not so with Fine Cell Work! Their designs run from elegant Victorian to cutting edge pop and the quality can grace any home or office.
“Fine Cell Work trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. This helps them to connect to society and to leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending. We wish to build Fine Cell Work as a sustainable social business and charity with the prisoners as stakeholders in the enterprise. We are aiming to become more embedded in the prison system and to guide prisoners towards formal work training and qualifications and to match them up with organisations that can provide support or employment on release.”
I have lately picked up my own embroidery again, stitching away into the night. The hours fly by and I find so much joy in each stitch. How much more will someone enjoy this as an escape when they have nowhere to go, nothing to do? Many of our TAFA members have talked about how their art has healed them and provided a voice for their spirit, an outlet for their creative forces. Handwork and labor of all kinds, music, theater, and the arts all play important roles in our social fabric, in expressing who we are as people, sometimes broken, sometimes lost, and often in need of healing.
That Fine Cell Work has also successfully turned this endeavor into a successful social enterprise also emphasizes its importance as a model when looking at our current models of employment in our prison systems. It has great potential to develop strong bonds with the fashion and home decor markets in a humane way. We have heard of how Chinese prisons use its inmates as slave labor in the production of toys and other goods that are exported to the United States. Our own prisons in the US have been described as rife with cheap labor scams. Programs like Fine Cell Work enable prisoners to earn their own way back into society, both financially and with a stronger sense of self, community, and worth.
These videos that tell a bit of the story. The first is from a former inmate who now serves as a volunteer. Martin talks about embroidery helped him come out of depression:
This second one is a speech by Jeremy Wright, MP, at a Fine Cell Work Event:
This one is longer, but a great overview of what they do:
Fine Cell Work has an online shop on their site, so if you want a great pillow, head on over there! They also have some quilts, and most importantly, accept commissions for almost any kind of needlepoint work. Here are some other examples:
I must say that it also warms my heart to see guys doing needlework! Break open the stereotypes and let all people enjoy these arts!
Visit their profile on TAFA and spread their story! Engage your own local community into similar efforts. We are all in need of a bit of healing and a needle and thread goes a long way in spreading some love.