Most people picture “community service,” as people in orange vests along the highway picking up trash. These people are not there voluntarily, but working off a punishment for a crime that did not merit incarceration.
There are also some do-gooders out there that perform acts of community service as part of a service organization or church. And there are even a few folks out there that believe in paying it forward and delight in random acts of kindness.
I recently learned about another kind of community service – acts of kindness performed by inmates in prison who are not working off a debt, but serving purely out of the kindness of their hearts with absolutely nothing to gain.
I recently had the privilege of spending a day in lockdown at the maximum security Wabash Valley Correctional facility in Carlisle, Indiana. I spent my time in the PLUS Unit (Purposful Living Units Serve) which is a section of the prison set apart for inmates who want to better themselves through education and self improvement and give back through community service.
The inmates in the PLUS unit have been making quilts for Chemo Buddy patients since we first began our program a little over a year ago, and I was eager to meet
and thank them personally for their service.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced that day. No words can adequately express to you now what it was like to be there, to meet them, to just stop and talk and visit with them in their home. I experienced an enlightenment of new knowledge and stereotypes were shattered.
Simply stated, it was good. Really good.
This group of inmates – most of which are criminally considered the worst of the worst – were polite, genuine, well spoken, and sincere. If you are as cynical as I am, you might be thinking something like, “Well of course – they are con men!” And while that might be true in some cases, they are so much more than that! The biggest blow to the con argument is the simple fact that many of these men will never be outside this prison again. There is absolutely no payoff or gain to be made by being humble and polite. They are not paid for their hours upon hours of labor and receive no extra perks or privileges.
There are paying jobs inside the prison that allow inmates to buy extra food items at the commissary, but none of these are available to the men of the PLUS unit, so being a member of this unit is actually more punitive than a normal unit. Their labor is voluntary, and is considered a way that they can give back to the outside world where they committed their crimes.
These men are now committed to living life by a code of values: tolerance, compassion, honesty, responsibility and respect.
While a sizeable amount of their time is spent on community service, another requirement of being on the PLUS unit is that they enroll in classes. Many of the men I met were currently studying, “The 7 habits of highly effective people.” One man I met completed 3 years of college courses while residing on the PLUS unit.
The unit itself is very pleasant. Inmates wear khaki shirts and pants and my first thought was that they looked just like anyone else. No one looked scary or intimidating. The room has been painted with inspirational and uplifting messages.
Inmates can choose what type of community service they do. One very artistic
gentleman I met was sculpting a minature version of the USS Vincennes. He made his own clay out of Elmer’s Glue and baby powder. When completed, he will donate it to the city of Vincennes.
Another project I saw was a large greeting card made for the city of Newtown, Conneticut. The front was compromised of handprints that represented each child and each adult that perished. The inside, which was signed with a note from each inmate, had a pop up Teddy Bear and flowers.
This is a world where people, who have been deemed unfit to live in our society, spend days plotting on ways to give back and make the world a
Our quilting tour began with meeting a man named Mitch. Mitch told me that he had been in prison for 10 years before the PLUS program began in 2003. Before that, he said inmates had two choices – either spend your time learning how to be a better criminal, or spend your time learning to be invisible and serve your time without anyone noticing you. There was no such thing as a positive way to spend your time while doing time.
Ten years later, Mitch is the inmate in charge of the entire quilting program. His easy smile and gentle manner made all of us feel so comfortable. He showed us the storage rooms where donated fabric comes in, and how it is sorted and stored by color. He also showed us some finished quilts that were waiting to go out, including a large horse quilt that was made for one of the prison guards. Every prison employee gets a custom quilt as a gift when they retire.
He also shared with us a story of a grieving mother who lost her son in Afghanistan. The mother had become depressed and was having a rough day feeling that no one even remembered her son. About that time, two Marine officers rang her doorbell. They were there to present a quilt made by the PLUS unit that was personalized with her son’s name. The PLUS Unit makes a personalized quilt for the family of every Indiana soldier killed in the line of duty.
Donated fabric is measured and marked using cardboard patterns and then precisely cut on the line using small safety scissors. Patterns are arranged and then sewn together using sewing machines. Once the front of the quilt is finished, it goes to a supervisor for a quality control check. When approved, a border is sewn on and then batting and a backing completes the sewing process. Half circle type needles are used to add string tie throughout the pattern to secure all three layers. Quilts then pass back through quality control before leaving.
Chemo Buddy Dan Ashby volunteers on the PLUS Unit every Thursday and brings the quilts from the prison to my mother, Vernie Wilhite, who washes them, folds them, ties a ribbon around them and then brings them to OHA. Chemo Buddies give them to patients on their first day of treatment with a note that explains where the quilts come from.
Sometimes, our patients are so moved by their quilts that they in turn, donate fabric back to the inmates for use in future quilts, and the circle continues.
From where I sit, this whole thing is nothing short of a miracle.
Before leaving the prison, I had a chance to chat with Mr. Ortiz. A well spoken 64 year old gentleman who told me he had just completed a video project with some students from Vincennes University. The video follows 3 inmates for a 24 hour period in lockup. It is the hope of Mr. Ortiz that the video will be shown to young people and used as a deterrent and show them how hard life is on the inside.
“I was in my early twenties when I came to prison,” he said, “I was young and messed up and I deserved my sentence. But it is my passion and purpose in life to do everything I can do to keep other young people from making the same mistakes I made.”
We talked for awhile and he left me feeling so uplifted and encouraged. This is someone I felt so connected to. I wanted to help him in his mission. In my mind I was picturing scheduling him for speaking engagements and assemblies and who knows what else. He had such a powerful story to tell. This man was a difference maker.
“How much longer do you have on your sentence?” I asked.
He smiled at me. “You misunderstand, I’ll be making a difference from the inside. I got a life sentence plus 110 years.”
I was stunned.
And yet, I understood. Prison was not the end of his story, it was the beginning. Before prison he was on a collision course with evil. In prison, a place known for evil, he found God and became the person God had intended him to be. Every day for him was a gift, and he was truly happy and content doing God’s work here in this place.
The picture of success. Filled with hope. A legacy not of evil, but of love.
All sizes of quilts are made.