Tad Hunter, an inmate at Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, demonstrates for News-Press Now how he and other inmates knit hats. Several inmates participate in the Restorative Justice program. They make things, like the hats, to donate to the community.

Several local inmates are striving to make a difference in the community that they are aiming to be a part of again.

Inside the Western Reception Diagnostic & Correctional Center, a number of men can be found knitting hats. These inmates are a part of the Restorative Justice Organization.

“Just because we’re locked up don’t mean we can’t give back,” inmate Joseph Lancaster said. “It’s nice to be able to do something after all the wrong we’ve done.”

The Restorative Justice Organization is an inmate-run program where offenders volunteer in various activities that give back to the community.

Some of those activities include creating hats to be donated, building coloring books and flashcards for children, planting trees, collecting stamps for veterans, and making baby blankets. Profits through their commissary purchases also go toward non-profit organizations.

“We have a bunch of guys in our wing that build hats,” said Robert Williams, an inmate at the correctional center. “All these tough guys, all these tattooed men running around knitting hats that’s what you are seeing in our wing.”

Since Thanksgiving, the group has been crocheting small red hats for babies in connection with The Children’s Heart Foundation.

One inmate said he has twins who were both ventilator-dependent when they were first born.

“It’s kind of a special place in my heart to help kids, especially ones that are having heart issues,” Tad Hunter said. “It means a lot to me to give back.”

According to employees, the program started because the department of corrections changed its philosophy from warehousing to habilitation and rehabilitation. Since then, the department has strived to find ways to help offenders become better citizens for when they are released back into the community.

Institutional Activities Coordinator Maria Rodrick searches for non-profit organizations that are willing to partner with Restorative Justice Organization.

“I came back and educated the offenders about it. That’s how they learn what’s available,” Rodrick said.

The group then decides on which programs they want to give their money and time toward.

None of the institution employees make the inmates participate as it is all volunteer.

“It benefits everybody because they are all getting out some day and when they are out being our neighbors, we want them to not be the type of person that comes to prison anymore,” said Asst. Warden Ryan Brownlow. “Anytime they do a project that focuses off of them and onto someone else, I think that really helps them.”

Williams said the more prepared he and the others are to readjust and be introduced into society, the more successful they can become.

“Everyone at this institution is on their way home so to be reacclimatized into society and to be prepared to go into society, that’s a necessity,” Williams said. “We do that with the skills we learn throughout this journey no matter how long that journey is.”

Multiple employees said this organization helps eliminate some of the conduct violations within the center. Rodrick said instead of getting into trouble, the inmates focus on something to keep them occupied.

“When they start getting involved, their attitudes completely change,” said Clinical Supervisor Lisa Cronk. “They’re happy, they’re pleasant, they’re social, they’re not hard and tough, mean put-on guys.”

The men who are volunteering in the organization are breaking the inmate stereotype.

“You don’t have to have that tough guy mentality all the time,” said inmate Richard Cross. “We’ve done so much stuff through our lives to prove how tough we are, it’s about time we give back and really show how tough we are.”

Hunter said the group builds comradery between the men.

“It doesn’t matter who we are or what our background is,” Hunter said. “What we are doing here, it’s fun and it also gives us something in common where we can meet and interact with other people and learn how to have healthy competition.”

The group joked around Wednesday about challenging one another on who could knit a hat the fastest.

They also said they recruit other inmates to join by challenging them. Williams said if you tell someone they can’t do something, it’ll make them step up and do it.

Lancaster said the knitting is fun, but also therapeutic.

“I can sit there and sort of lose myself in the hats at the same time I’m thinking about who might get these hats,” he said.

Inmate Donovan Edmunds said he gets to go home next week, but will continue to help the community.

“I’m going to continue to make these hats when I get out,” he said. “There’s not a negative thing about making a hat for somebody who needs a hat.”

Kristen Carver can be reached at kristen.carver@newspressnow.com or follow her on twitter at @NPNowCarver

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