“I never know quite what I’m going to find when I arrive,” says Caroline, who teaches quilting to prisoners in Wandsworth and Brixton for Fine Cell Work. “Sometimes a prison wing is on lock down or my best quilter has been moved on or deported.” It took her Wing K class 3.5 years to complete a quilt for the 2010 V&A quilting exhibition and I’m starting to realise what she’s up against.
There might be elements of the prison system Caroline doesn’t like and puts up with, but she’s also found her own creative methods; drawing keys so she doesn’t waste time waiting for escorts and never bringing anything with her which might pose a security risk. Even a small un picker has currency in prison, “You have to keep your wits about you.”
Brought up with a ‘sense of service,’ Caroline’s childhood was spent in Uganda, where her father (a church missionary) taught in a school. Seventeen years ago she answered an advert for embroidery and canvas work volunteers, saying she could do none of the above, but she could quilt. A hobby she’d taken up whilst living in Washington DC for two years with her husband.
In addition to caring for her grand children, she courageously visits prison weekly. Continuity is vital to building up the relationship with prisoners. “You can’t be bosom pals, but you can give them a better view on life.” Often she’s teaching basic life skills such as sharing and taking your turn, in the face of demanding and manipulative behaviour. Caroline has found placing positive comments and smiley faces in a prisoner’s work book is often the first praise they’ve ever had.
For one Wandsworth inmate, Caroline’s quilting class was the first time he’d made friends. “Prisoners like doing work alone so they get paid, but working together on a quilt is a different experience they enjoy,” she explains. “The act of stitching is therapy and soul enhancing.”
All Fine Cell Work products have a label, saying who made them and consumers are encouraged to write to the prisoner (via the Charity). The payment they receive means success and helps them believe they have something to hold on to. “But the letter, they wait for the moment that letter arrives,” Caroline tells me.
“Friends sometimes ask me why I spend my free time volunteering in prison, but I get SO much out of it. It’s an enormous privilege to help those who are less fortunate.”
To purchase Fine Cell Work's products please click here for their website and don't forget to write to the person who made it, you will probably make their year!