Hang ’em, flog ’em, or stitch ’em up? Embroidery as rehabilitation

Perfection, as one inmate in HMP Wandsworth remarks on the Fine Cell Work website, is not what’s usually expected in prisons.

Fine Cell Work is a charity that teaches needlework to prisoners, to help them acquire professional-level skills, earn money and prepare for a return to society. If you think this sounds like a completely improbable idea, a pie-in-the-sky do-gooder’s scheme on a level with knitting raffia sheep for the school hall fundraiser, prepare to eat those words – because it works. It’s producing dazzling work from superb stitchers – you can see examples online and at FCW events around the country, and there’s a showroom in London, at 38 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1.

More importantly,  it’s changing the way people think.

I never gave prison much thought until  I spent two years working with the legal team of a long-serving remand prisoner. He wasn’t your average British lag: he was a wealthy, well-educated , well-connected foreign lawyer fighting extradition.  I visited him in HMP Pentonville once or twice, then after his transfer I went to HMP Brixton most days to see him. His family visited as often as they were allowed to.

Even for a man with superb family and legal support, with plenty of money for books, phonecards, stamps, and luxuries like decent vegetarian food, with the intelligence to rationalise his situation, work on his own case and help other inmates out with advice, prison was still hell. Because of his age and state of health, as well as the circumstances of the case, he had a cell to himself, but he was not permitted to work. If he hadn’t had two daily legal visits, he would have been locked up for even more of the time, spending over twenty hours a day in a six by nine foot cell that was neither comfortable nor easy to keep clean. It’s easy to understand how someone without much family support, without much education, without a sense of purpose, and without any prospects on the outside, could become so frustrated, angry and depressed that rehabilitation becomes almost impossible.

Prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation as well as punishment. Whether you think that this is good or bad, the way the British prison system works often hinders rehabilitation. Most prisoners, whether on remand or convicted, and whether they are held in conditions that Daily Telegraph readers might consider far too luxurious or Guardian readers might consider mediaeval, don’t get the right education, support, counselling or training to enable them to change their lives.

The prison staff are just as limited by the system as the prisoners. Many of them are doing an improbably good job in almost impossible circumstances. Most of them would readily admit that, with a few more resources and a decent environment, they could do much better by the people in their care and the society that expects so much of them.

Thankfully, there are people working to help prisoners do something constructive with their time inside. Most of them come from charities or religious groups, because most of us from both right and left are unwilling to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to actually engaging with damaged, resentful and sometimes dangerous individuals as human beings. Fine Cell Work is one of those charities. I found out about it from Mr. X Stitch, and I want to spread the word.

Operating in 26 prisons through 45 volunteer instructors, Fine Cell Work trains stitchers to the highest levels of technical competence. This isn’t surprising – the instructors come from such prestigious institutions as the Royal College of Needlework, the Embroiderers’ Guild and  the professional design world. Knitwear and embroidery designer Kaffe Fassett is one of the patrons.

Two thirds of the stitchers are men – which ought not to be surprising, since men still make up the majority of the prison population. Most have no previous experience of any form of craft work and few or no legally saleable skills. Fine Cell Work helps them work towards rehabilitation on many levels.

Learning needlework techniques is a valuable way to achieve and practice precision, care, patience and pride in one’s product. Stitching works for me like a physical mantra: the simple, repetitive actions and complete focus on the needle’s movements free my mind from the world and relax me as much as formal meditation. If stitching gives a few moments’ detachment to a prisoner, it may be the only healing opportunity in his day.

Learning anything to a high enough level to sell on equal terms with professionals is a boost to self-esteem. Once fully trained, the crafters are entrusted with commissions that have deadlines, and also support and mentor trainees. These are saleable skills,  a major factor in reducing the likelihood of re-offending.

Working on commission provides the crafters with an income outside the pennies-an-hour prison earnings that most have to rely on. Some send money to their families, some pay off debts or save for their release. Savings are another proven factor reducing the likelihood of an offender returning to crime.

Prisoners work when locked in their cells – in some circumstances, this can be for 23 hours a day. Having something constructive to do is a life-saver, let alone something that will be evaluated purely on how well you’ve done the work, earning respect as well as money. A Wandsworth officer points out on the Fine Cell Work website that self-respect is another factor in “addressing offending behaviour.”

Fine Cell Work is funded by several charitable Foundations and operates with a fulltime staff of five and a team of 65 volunteers. Some of these teach in prison, some work at the London offices sorting threads and materials into project kits to go out to the prisoners, and some help out at Fine Cell Work sales events all over the country. If you’d like to know more about volunteering, the contact page on the website has the address, phone number and a form for email contact.

Needlework can change the world, one stitch at a time. Fine Cell Work is one of the groups that makes it happen. They deserve the support of every stitcher on the planet. If you’re still not convinced, read the letters on their website.


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