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Every so often, Jim Williams wakes up in the middle of the night and lies awake inside his prison cell, thinking about quilt designs.
As his fellow inmates at South Central Correctional Center snore and shift in their sleep, Williams mulls over the layout of cloth shapes, rearranging them in his mind. “I’m kind of a perfectionist,” he said. “I’ll wake up at 2:30 in the morning and think, ‘That color really isn’t going to work.’”
It wasn’t always this way. Williams had never touched a sewing machine until last year, when he was recruited to sew face masks for prison inmates and staff during the pandemic.
Now he’s part of a small group of volunteers at the Licking, Missouri, prison who spend their days making intricately designed quilts for charity. The group, which relies entirely on donations, is working on an ambitious project: sewing personalized quilts for every foster child in Texas County.
The seven men in the program meet daily in the prison’s sewing room, the hum of the machines providing a constant soundtrack.
One of the more experienced quilters in the group, Richard Sanders, never intended to join the program — in fact, he actively avoided groups like this in the past. But soon after he visited the sewing room to help fix a broken machine, he decided to enroll.
“It’s just a real peaceful environment,” said Sanders, who has been incarcerated in Missouri for more than three decades. “These places, the more you stay busy, the better you are.”
He’s made hundreds of quilts in the past eight years, sending photos of each one to his elderly mother. Despite the many quilts he’s donated to charity, Sanders said, “I really feel, in my heart, we should do more.”
The quilting program offers the men a temporary “escape from the prison world” and a chance to engage with the community, said Joe Satterfield, case manager at South Central. To join the group, an inmate cannot have any recent conduct violations on his record.
“You can see a change in their attitude,” said Satterfield, who runs the program. “A light flips on like, ‘Oh, this is a new avenue. I can actually be a part of something.’”
The project hinges on the concept of restorative justice, which emphasizes community-building and rehabilitation over punitive measures. As part of this effort, Missouri inmates at prisons statewide volunteer in a variety of ways, including training shelter dogs and growing vegetables for food banks.
In the sewing room at South Central, members of the close-knit group are working toward a common goal: finishing more than 80 unique quilts for children in the Texas County foster care system.
The men design the quilts with individual children in mind, embroidering their first names on the corner. For volunteer Rod Harney, it’s an attempt to let these children know that they haven’t been forgotten.
“You see the names of these kids in foster care; you see a 1-year-old or 2-year-old, and it kind of breaks your heart,” said Harney, who learned to sew in his seventh-grade home economics class. “But that lets us know we’re human still. You can’t express enough how it feels to do it.”
Harney recently put the finishing touches on a quilt for an 18-year-old boy who will soon age out of the foster care system.
Edged in crushed velour, the quilt features a grizzly bear that appears to be gazing through a window — to show the teenager “the world is at your front door,” Harney explained. He spent more than 100 hours on it, carefully embroidering each square with geometric designs.
Once finished, each quilt is packaged with a handmade hat, along with school supplies and toiletries donated by other inmates at South Central.
Jim Williams is now designing an orange-and-seafoam green quilt for a 4-year-old boy. With every one sent off, he said, he feels a deep sense of accomplishment.
“For a foster child, they don’t get a lot; they’re in a home that may or may not really make them feel like part of the family,” Williams said. “So when I see this quilt laid out here on the table, I get emotional. I really do.”