Knitting Behind Bars

Maryland / Jan. 14, 2012 / by The Team

"Listen, if I can do it, then anyone can do it."

Every Thursday at five o'clock, you can find Lynn Zwerling and Sheila Rovelstad, needles in hand, providing encouragement and guidance to diligent pupils working on hats or sweaters.

As students and teachers settle into the quiet hum of the knitting circle, a cloud of relaxed calm falls across the group. Lynn and Sheila’s knitting class is like many others across the country. Except theirs takes place in prison and their students are inmates.

At the Jessup Pre-Release Unit (JPRU) in Jessup, Maryland, the relationship between the inmates and the women is like family, and the bond between inmate and knitting is just as natural.

Knitting Behind Bars grew from Lynn and Sheila’s passion for their chosen obsession.

Throughout a stressful career, Lynn found knitting to be much more than a hobby. “When I learned how to knit I saw that I'd think about it all day. I could get through most anything, any stress… because I knew I could go home and knit.”

After retiring and starting a knitting group that counts over 500 members, she saw the calming effect and atmosphere of camaraderie that knitting gave its members. 

If knitting could bring together people who have nothing in common but a love of knitting, what could it do for people who had never been exposed to knitting, ever? 

So she decided to take her knitting behind bars.

Wardens concerned with safety and doubtful of the interest among inmates repeatedly turned Lynn away. After five years of pounding the pavement, Lynn finally got her chance. JPRU gave her the opportunity to prove that Knitting Behind Bars could contribute to the prison population’s well being. 

As participation, interest, and even a waiting list for the program grew, the prison began to recognize the value of KBB.

Just as Lynn had predicted, the men that attended the weekly, two-hour class immediately started to experience knitting’s calming effects. An atmosphere of focus and normalcy effortlessly interrupted the monotony of daily life in prison. 

“They come in, they’re kind of worked up, they’ll sit down and just calm right down.”

There has been an additional benefit: the opportunity to practice social skills often cast aside behind bars. Lynn believes that knitting is an “opportunity to practice, to hone their social skills… there’s no such thing as socializing in jail.” The relationship Lynn and Sheila have developed with the knitters is almost like family. 

With a broad smile, Ritchie Horton, a former inmate and member of the JPRU knitting circle, reflects that “it’s kind of like they’re moms coming in.” 

Sheila and Lynn understand the value of treating inmates as people. 

“There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. I think as members of society we have to understand that this line doesn’t exist.” She believes that Knitting Behind Bars provides a transition from the world of prison to the world outside. 

Outside of the prison’s walls, Sheila runs a business dyeing yarn. At Wüllenstudio, she names each yarn’s color scheme after a different rock song. 

Recently, Sheila saw an opportunity to use her business to help grow the Knitting Behind Bars program by developing a yarn inspired by the inmates. She developed a competition online, asking for ideas for the new yarn’s color scheme. Over fifty different yarn enthusiasts contributed their ideas for the special edition yarn appropriately named ‘I Fought the Law, and the Law Won.’

Sheila wrote each submission on the blackboard at JPRU. She then asked the knitters to choose the color scheme they wanted. Shocked to be given a choice, the members of the group were initially overwhelmed by such a crucial decision. They unanimously selected blue, green and black – blue for the sky, green for the grass, and black for the bars that keep them from the sky and the grass.

The wild success of Knitting Behind Bars shows that inspiration is waiting in the things we love. Lynn and Sheila’s passion has been a positive presence for the inmate population of JPRU for the past two years. 

Sheila and Lynn’s energy and excitement is infectious. If they have their way (and chances are they will), Knitting Behind Bars will not only continue to flourish at JPRU, but will be the inspiration for similar programs across the country.

For more information on Knitting Behind Bars visit their website ( Volunteers and those interested in donating to Knitting behind bars can put requests through their website. If you’re interested in purchasing Sheila’s yarn, ‘I Fought the Law, and the Law Won,’ you can visit her Etsy site (