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Lynn Zwerling's knitting group for male prisoners opens up their world

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Zwerling made her career selling used cars at dealerships around Baltimore, while she and her husband raised two kids. Often the only woman on the lot, she buzzed with energy, outselling most of the guys. When she retired in 2007, she needed a project.

"I worked only with men," she says, "so when I retired, I said: 'Oh my god, I don't have any girlfriends. What am I going to do with myself?' "

She had recently learned to knit, so it occurred to her to start a knitting group at a local bookstore. Nobody showed up the first week. But then a trickle became a flood. The group soon outgrew the bookstore, ballooning to nearly 600 members. They meet weekly, chatting about families, recipes, and vacations – while churning out sweaters.

Zwerling liked the kaffeeklatsch atmosphere. But not as much as she likes a challenge. She saw how knitting and a supportive environment had fostered connections between people from disparate backgrounds.

"And I thought: "It's calming, it's creative; anyone can do it. I wanted to go someplace that it was totally off the wall."

JPRU is a squat, yellow facility about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The halls are noisy and full of men. When Zwerling met Chippendale, then Jessup's facility administrator, she brought an infectious, almost manic enthusiasm about the idea of these felons making yarn dolls and pompom hats.

"I told her: 'Everybody wants to knit; they just don't know they do,' " Zwerling recalls.

Somehow, she made the sale.

"Lynn is a salesperson. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it," says Chippendale, now assistant warden for the Maryland Correctional Pre-Release System. "I was a little skeptical. But she had made up her mind."

When Chippendale pitched the idea of dozens of sharp objects being brought into the facility each week for a knitting class, her staff was less than thrilled. Even after she addressed their safety concerns – they would count the needles coming in and out of the prison each week – there was another worry: Would men even show up for a knitting class?

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