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Iowa inmates sewing usher uniforms for new Hancher Auditorium

Project teaching women at Mitchellville prison life skills


A sheet shows the design of the new usher uniforms for Hancher Auditorium in the Iowa Prison Industries building at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Inmates are making the new usher uniforms for Hancher Auditorium. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A sheet shows the design of the new usher uniforms for Hancher Auditorium in the Iowa Prison Industries building at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Inmates are making the new usher uniforms for Hancher Auditorium. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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MITCHELLVILLE — Sewing machines hum inside the Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville as inmates focus on the day’s work — taking 18 pieces of soft, smooth wool and turning them into uniform jackets.

As thread from 3-inch-tall spools is spun into the fabric, the black-with-green-trim and green-with-black-trim blazers begin to take shape. Come September, they’ll be worn by the ushers at the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium.

“I love this,” says Avis Blair, 60, an inmate at Mitchellville, who is one of eight women helping to make the uniforms as an employee of Iowa Prison Industries, the work arm of the Iowa Department of Corrections.

Iowa Prison Industries landed the project through a partnership with Iowa State University, where the Hancher usher uniforms were designed by students.

“Part of Hancher’s mission is that we strive to reach the lives of every Iowan with transformative artistic experiences,” Chuck Swanson, executive director of Hancher, said Wednesday during a tour at the prison. “It was a little bit of a risk for us to start something that is going to be so visible, but as soon as I walked into the building, I felt so good about it.”

Swanson said 200 uniforms are needed to outfit Hancher’s ushers. The original Hancher Auditorium was flooded in 2008 and the new Hancher is set to be unveiled on Sept. 9.

“Our student ushers, they’re front and center, and they have to have usher uniforms,” Swanson said. “We really thought to ourselves, ‘We don’t want to go to the internet and order just anything.’ ”

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The women at Mitchellville are paid a starting wage of 58 cents per hour to work on projects ranging from building furniture to digitizing microfilm to framing pictures.

Prison officials said the uniforms are unique and special.

“They’re a piece of history in the long range of the auditorium,” said Patti Wachtendorf, warden at the prison. “They were part of the redesign and making, and seeing these college students wearing what they designed ... it’s a lot of pride.”

Each uniform costs about $100 to make, said Justin Opfer, Iowa Prison Industries plant manager.

Standing at a table using a chickadee fabric cutter, Blair — who received a life sentence in 1984 for first-degree murder — calls textile work peaceful and calming.

She said she takes the work seriously.

“This would be something that I could move into when I go out there,” Blair said. “The more I learn in here, the better I’ll be for someone out there.”

Todd Givens, state industries tech for Iowa Prison Industries, said inmates are learning more than how to sew — they are learning life skills, including communication skills, teamwork and responsibility, that may help them land a job should they be released from prison.

“They’re doing something that’s going to a cause, something that they normally wouldn’t be a part of because they’re here,” he said. “When they come down here … they’re accomplishing something.”

Brenda Ackerman, a senior lecturer in the apparel merchandising program at ISU, who works with the female inmates as a mentor, echoed Givens’ statement.

“We want to get them past the point that you’re not just sewing,” she said. “It’s learning how to read directions, taking pride in what you do. It gives them that inner confidence to do something, to be able to be disciplined and follow through with those directions, which is going to help them when they get released,” she said.

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Blair said she can picture in her mind University of Iowa students wearing the uniforms she’s helping to make. She’s proud to be a part of the project.

“People are going to know where they came from,” she said. “We get a lot of bad press, and very seldom do we get good press. People are going to wonder, ‘What are they learning in there? What are they doing in there?’ Some people actually think that we just sit around. But this is showing them we’re in here learning something.”

Blair said this is one of the biggest sewing projects she and the other inmates have ever tackled.

“Everyone’s out to put their best foot forward,” she said.s

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