Wednesday, 12 June 2013

One Small, Knitted Step in the Right Direction

When Raquell Guimaraes, a Brazilian fashion designer, needed to boost production for her clothing line and couldn't find the skilled workers she needed, she turned to prison inmates at the Ariosvaldo Campos Pires. The prisoners were taught to knit and crochet and made Guimaraes's designs for export abroad. In return they received 75% of the minimum wage in Brazil and one day off their prison sentence for every three days they spent knitting. Twenty-five percent of the money the prisoners earn is set aside for them to have the day they are freed from prison. The program has been in existence since 2009, employs about 20 prisoners, and seems to have been a success.

I've written about knitting in prison before, when I posted about knitting classes in a Maryland prison back in December 2012. Since then I've learned a little more about vocational and educational programs in prison, and penal system budget allocation. I do think knitting programs such as the Maryland prison knitting class and the Ariosvaldo Campos Pires knitting shop are successes, but rather than advocate specifically for more knitting programs in prison, I would like to see more educational and vocational programs in prisons in general, and to see them tailored to suit current workforce requirements. Knitting is a wonderful hobby but, realistically, it won't lead to livelihoods for very many prisoners. It won't pay a living wage and no one's hands will stand up to the stresses of knitting 40 hours a week for very long. It can certainly be one of the skills taught in prison, but shouldn't be the only one or the most emphasized.

Many prison inmates lack any real education or job skills. My research tells me that something in the neighbourhood of 60-70% of prison inmates in Canada, U.S., and the U.K. are functionally illiterate, and that educational and vocational programs are the best tools we have for ensuring that prisoners will lead a productive and lawful life once they finish their sentences. Prisoners are often avid to learn new skills, because they're so bored and miserable that even things they would normally never have considered, such as training seeing eye dogs or translating books into Braille, sound like an attractive option, and then once they know how to do something useful that they enjoy doing, they want to keep doing it. And yet, at least in the U.S., only something like 5% of prison budgets is spent on such programs, and they are the first things to go during budget cuts. This NPR article on California's Folsom Prison is interesting if you'd like to learn more about this matter.

According to this New Yorker article, there there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in the U.S. (more than six million) than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. Canada has only about 38,000 people in custody, but our penal system is only an improvement on that of the U.S. in terms of scale, not in nature — our recidivism rates seem to be just as high, and Canadian prisons have a worse record than that of the U.S. in certain other issues. Over 90% of North American prisoners will go back to prison once released unless they are taught the job and life skills and given the mental health and substance abuse treatments they need to be useful, self-supporting members of society. Helping prisoners to lead better lives would not only be the humane thing to do and make our society safer, but would also save us an astounding amount of tax dollars... and yet it isn't happening.

No one listens to prisoners or ex-prisoners, and the prison service industry has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. It's up to the general population of a society to work towards and insist upon a penal system reform. Knitting classes or workshops involving 20 men each are wonderful and heart-warming to read about, but they are only a tiny step in the right direction.

Coming up: Look for the Petite Purls Issue 15 review tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. YES thank you. Every time I hear something about "teaching prisoners to knit" I think "That's great, but maybe we should start with basic literacy first."