MONROE — Prison can change a man.
It turned Travis Cargile into a quilter.
Cargile is serving 25 years at the Monroe Correctional Complex for first-degree murder.
He could watch TV, shoot hoops or walk around the prison yard during his recreation time. Instead, he goes to the hobby shop and quilts with a half-dozen other inmates.
“It’s very constructive,” said Cargile, 36. “I don’t think anyone who comes in here leaves mad.”
The quilting program at the Monroe prison has attracted a small but loyal following of inmates, program organizer Sascha Schaudies said.
“There’s really no tangible benefit for them other than the emotional satisfaction of coming in and doing work,” he said. “It’s not like they’re getting extra good time for this.”
Schaudies, a recreation specialist at the prison, started the quilting program about two years ago, putting the sewing machines in the hobby shop back to use.
As the program’s leader, Schaudies makes sure everything runs smoothly. He knows how to fix a jammed sewing machine. He doesn’t spend tax dollars on the program, instead gathering donations from the quilting community.
The prison-made quilts need homes, so Schaudies maintains contact with groups like Project Linus and the Eastside Baby Corner. The nonprofit groups distribute the blankets to those in need.
The prisoners churn out hundreds of quilts. One of their designs used old blue denim and bright red corduroy. The tough cloth and stark colors made for an eye-popping design.
While the inmates’ finished product is always a respectable blanket, their work area is far removed from your grandmother’s quilting circle.
Rotary wheels — the handheld blades that cut cloth and look like pizza slicers — are kept in a locked cabinet behind a solid red line. That entire area is out-of-bounds to prisoners.
Schaudies also must inspect fabric donations for contraband, so prisoners can’t bring something sharp back to their cells.
“People will leave safety pins in the cloth,” Schaudies said. “That’s actually something we always have to look out for.”
The program gives inmates like John Olson a way to cope with their grim setting, Schaudies said.
Olson, 44, likes art. He designed many of the tattoos on his arms — skulls, a warrior, chains. He is serving up to 19 years for theft and harassment.
During a previous sentence, Olson’s teenage son was sent to a foster home for about a year. That made Olson feel helpless.
“When they get thrown into a place like that, I’m sure it’s like when one of us gets thrown into a cell, and you hear that frickin’ cell door slam shut,” Olson said.
Some of his quilts may go to foster children, however.
“It hits home with me a little bit,” he said.
Olson has made 123 quilts since joining the program in June 2008. He never used a sewing machine before then.
Neither had Cargile. He has made about 50 quilts since joining the program six months ago. He was sewing together squares of thin pink and blue cloth as he spoke with Schaudies.
Cargile takes anger management courses as part of his rehabilitation therapy. He said quilting should be part of the treatment.
“It gets me out of here,” he said, gesturing to his head. “It’s a no-stress zone.”
The program also can help prisoners rebuild bridges with the outside world. For every 10 or so quilts a prisoner completes, an inmate can send one to a family member, Schaudies said.
Cargile mailed one to a niece, another to a cousin. His family was shocked by the packages, he said.
“What are you doing?” they asked.
“Positive things,” he said.