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Sewing the way to a new life

An inmate at Denmar Correctional Facility adds pockets and seams to a pair of inmate pants in the sewing industry section of the facility. Up to 50 Denmar inmates work in the sewing department, making inmate uniforms for all of the prisons in West Virginia. S. Stewart photo
An inmate at Denmar Correctional Facility adds pockets and seams to a pair of inmate pants in the sewing industry section of the facility. Up to 50 Denmar inmates work in the sewing department, making inmate uniforms for all of the prisons in West Virginia. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

A quarter of the inmates at Denmar Correctional Facility are doing more than serving time – they are learning a valuable skill and giving back to the state through the West Virginia Correctional Industries sewing program.

While Hollywood depicts inmates stamping license plates and digging ditches, the Correctional Industries program has inmates doing much more.

Using the motto “Unlocking potential,” WVCI director Eddie Long said the program helps inmates prepare for life after prison by giving them a chance to see what the job market is like.

“Correctional Industries has been in place in West Virginia since 1939,” Long said. “It’s been a long, long time. We are in charge of all the manufacturing that goes on in the prisons. For instance, Mt. Olive, they make license plates. That’s what most people can identify with that’s made in prisons.”

Other West Virginia prisons have industries which include welding, furniture construction and printmaking. At Denmar, it’s sewing.

There are currently 44 inmates in the sewing program at Denmar, and they make prison uniforms for all the prisons in the state – roughly 8,000 men and women.

The program began in 1996 as a small shop and in 1998, a large building with a capacity for 50 workers, took its place.
Long said the program is designed to provide inmates with a trade, as well as keep them out of trouble during their stay in prison.

“It reduces idleness for sure,” he said. “We are a special revenue entity so we get no general funding. We have to support ourselves. We’re also a corrections program designed to develop job skills, so if you leave here, this particular shop, you’ve got some sewing experience.”

WVCI can also partner with private sector companies to help prisoners get jobs in the sewing field once they are released.

Like all jobs, the inmates are required to go through an application process and only well-behaved inmates are given a chance to enter the program. It is the highest paying job at the prison – inmates earn between 75 cents and $1.50 an hour – so it is competitive. Inmates are also required to have either a high school diploma or GED.

“You have to be somebody who gets along,” Long said. “If you’re a troublemaker, you’re not going to do it. If you start trouble in Industries, we’re pushing you back out.”

In the shop, among the hum of industrial sewing machines and material cutting machines, the inmates are focused on the task at hand. The work room is laid out like an assembly line with each inmate doing one specific part of each piece of clothing.

There is a line for jersey undershirts, button-up khaki shirts and khaki pants. Each item of clothing passes through anywhere from five to seven pairs of hands a day. The inmates have designated jobs to do – sew on sleeves, make a collar, sew on buttons, etc.

They are meticulous on the job and are in charge of one another.

Although Denmar employees Rick George and Charlene Beverage are the supervisors, the inmates are in charge of the work.
“They train each other, and they can move up the ranks,” George said. “The inmates are never the problem in any way. Our problems are road conditions and being able to get supplies. They take a lot of pride in what they do.”

The inmates are in charge of tracking the materials used and making spreadsheets to ensure they never run out of supplies.
When they come up against an issue, the inmates improvise and make things work. George explained that one inmate wanted to find an easier way to cut belt loops. He designed and made a machine out of spare parts. It worked so well, the machine was sent to Mt. Olive prison and the machine shop made a sturdier one out of metal.

Another inmate used an old sewing machine motor to make a dispenser for the waistband material.

George said he can see a change in inmates once they’ve been in the program for a while. Usually when he makes a snap judgement on an inmate, especially a younger one, he is pleasantly surprised to see them exceed his expectations.

“We are always talking about the younger generation coming through and how inept they are,” George said. “I was pleasantly surprised here, as of late. Normally the twenty-three-year-olds are hard to work with, but right here, he works so good. The guy here putting the waistband on. He’s barely pushing thirty and you just don’t expect them to have a good work ethic, but they do. Maybe we’re turning a corner.”

The inmates don’t confine themselves to making uniforms. During their breaks, they let the creative juices flow and make items for members of the community.

Beverage brings a lot of projects to the inmates, and they are always happy to help out.

“We made five quilts – a man’s, a woman’s, a boy’s, a girl’s and an infant’s – for a shelter in Lewisburg,” she said. “People from the facility donated the materials and when the guys had their break times, they sewed them.”

The inmates also made book sacks for Marlinton Elementary School students. Students are required to take a book home every evening to read to someone. A parent or guardian must sign a sheet to show the task was completed. The special bags made by the inmates are used to carry those books.

Beverage said the inmates also helped her church with a special project for a mission trip to Uganda.

“They make these little babies called Salvation Babies, and we made faces out of our scrap,” she said. “The guys used the bar tacker to do the eyebrows and they sewed buttons on. They had the best time doing that all during their break. Then I brought in little pieces of scrap for their clothes.”

Once the inmates were finished with their part, Beverage took the dolls to her church where the children stuffed them and sewed them together.

“The guys loved it because any way at all that they can give back to the community, they love,” Beverage said.

“When they used the bar tacker to do the faces, every one of them had a different expression,” George added.

There is no end to what the inmates can make – hats, lanyards, anything. All they need is the material and time.

“We hate to throw the scrap away,” George said. “There’s things it could be used for and we like to do that.”

George and Beverage take as much pride in the program as the inmates do in their creations. The supervisors see it as a way to help the men better themselves and get them ready for their second chance at life outside the prison walls.

“I look at it this way,” Beverage said. “It takes a village to raise a child. It takes this whole village and all of the OC to get them ready to go back out. I don’t care if you work in medical or if you’re in food or if you’re in maintenance – it takes everybody to get them ready. We’re just one small part of it. It takes everybody.”

When an inmate is released from Denmar, he will have the money he earned in the shop, but more importantly he will have skills, experience and knowledge to help him make a fresh start.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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