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

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Chippendale saw Zwerling's idea as an avenue for "restorative justice," a way for prisoners to give back to the community they had harmed. That, she decided, was worth the risks. She asked some of the inmates she knew best to show up for Zwerling's first class. In the weeks that followed, they returned on their own to make "comfort dolls" for children at a local domestic violence shelter.

"It was very compelling to watch these guys, some of them with tattoos all over their body, just these big gorillas of guys, trying to knit and helping each other," Chippendale says.

Now, nearly three years later, 254 felons have passed through the Knitting Behind Bars program. Its annual budget is $350, which Zwerling and fellow volunteers raise selling yarn-ball necklaces at the annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Other donations come through Ravelry.com, a social network for knitters.

This night, as Zwerling gets Butler started on his first square of blanket, down the table Dwayne Harris works carefully on a red glove, a complicated operation involving four needles.

When his bunk buddy first invited him to join Jessup's knitting group nine months ago, Mr. Harris, who looks like a young, goateed Morgan Freeman, said, "You out of your mind.' "

Then his friend sold it: "They got air conditioning."

When Harris visited the class, Zwerling, and her friend and Knitting Behind Bars cofounder Sheila Rovelstad, won him over.

"Come on, you'll like it, the Zen," he says, mimicking them, to laughs from the group. "It'll help you with anger management."

Across the table, Adam Hoover is working on an electric blue-and-black striped hat, a fresh pirate skeleton tattoo still raw on his pale forearm.

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