How about a group of male prisoners sitting in a circle and knitting, receiving both instruction and encouragement from a slender, pretty sixty-something woman who used to sell used cars for a living?
If that strikes you as nothing more than an improbable plot line for TV sitcom, get over it. It’s happening, and it’s helping guys with the kinds of serious anger management problems that got them incarcerated become more calm and relaxed.
The knitting instructor is Lynn Zwerling, who developed her persuasive skills and persistence by selling used cars for most of her working life. The experience taught her that persistence and optimism are just about the most valuable qualities anyone can have.
“I spent my working life in a man’s industry, working really hard, took care of my family and never took the time to make girlfriends,” says Zwerling. “When I retired, I needed to find something new to do.”
Zwerling took up knitting, then founded a knitting group that eventually grew to 600 members. “I realized how happy and relaxed knitting made these people, who had nothing in common except knitting,” says Zwerling. “I wondered what would happen if I took this practice to a population that had no knowledge of it. Would they, too, find this relaxing, calming, meditative?”
At that moment, Zwerling says, she decided to teach men in prison how to knit. “We had a few men in our knitting group it seemed to me that they really benefitted,” Zwerling says. “And the ones I had taught to knit were happy, and such good knitters.”
Over the course of the first year Zwerling had worked with the knitting group, she had also developed what she describes as a “five-minute how to knit course that’s so easy my French poodle could learn how to knit.”
Armed with her knitting course, her observations of the beneficial effects knitting produces and her native energy, Zwerling began contacting men’s prisons. “I didn’t approach women’s prisons because I didn’t want this to be a women’s thing,” she says, adding that most of the knitters in the club she started are, in fact, women.
Over the next five years, Zwerling met with administrators of every men’s prison in Maryland, where she lives. “It took me that long to get one jail to pay attention,” she says. “I met with the wardens and other big decision-makers, and they would look at me like I was crazy. They were horrified.”
Until Zwerling succeeded in getting her program accepted, most of the programs available to inmates came through the prison school system and weren’t very good. Prison personnel complain that there aren’t enough program volunteers, buy when someone actually does volunteer, they don’t want anything new,” she says. “They just did not like my idea at all.
Finally, a friend Zwerling had met while volunteering at a local non-profit introduced her to a female warden who seemed willing to at least listen. “I called her about every four minutes,” Zwerling says. ”After all, I’m a used car saleswoman. Unless you give me a hard ‘NO!’ I’m not going to give up! I know when the deal hasn’t been made yet.”
Finally, the warden agreed to give Zwerling’s proposed program a shot, assembling the initial group of five male prisoners at Jessup prison. “They absolutely loved knitting,” Zwerling remembers. “They fell for it.”
“Then the warden put me in front of the entire prison population, and you should have seen their faces. They didn’t know what the hell they were there for, just that they had to attend this assembly.”
Zwerling asked that anyone who wanted to knit stand up. Nobody stood up. She asked, “Who has a grandmother who knits?” and some stood up. When she asked how many of the men had problems with anger management, they all stood up.
“There were only four men still seated. When I asked them if they wanted to learn how to knit, the guys who were standing said they wanted to learn how to knit, too!”
Now, three years later, Zwerling spends two hours each week knitting with a group of imprisoned men. Each time a prisoner is released or transferred, another one takes his place.
Zwerling encourages her students to tell someone they’ve hurt in the past that they are learning to knit, to knit hats for their kids and other loved ones. “I don’t ask them how long they’re in prison for,” she says. “I don’t ask them what their crimes were.”
Does the anger management technique of knitting continue after prisoners are released? Apparently so. One of Zwerling’s former students who is now free even stays in touch with her via Facebook so he can show her pictures of his latest knitting projects!
By Julie Crawshaw