MONTGOMERY — For the first time since she was incarcerated 15 years ago, Connie Tozzi was able to send a Christmas gift to her family this year — a beautifully hand-crocheted baby blanket that would go to the grandson she has never met.
“For years, I haven’t been able to send them anything but a Christmas card,” Tozzi said as tears filled her eyes. “But this year, I can, and it feels wonderful.”
Tozzi, along with several other women at the Montgomery Women’s Facility, have crocheted hundreds of hats, ear warmers, socks, scarves, mittens and blankets.
About 400 of those items were made for and donated to Stella’s Voice, a nonprofit in Montgomery that collects money and supplies for Stella’s House, an orphanage in Eastern Europe designed to rescue orphaned girls from human trafficking.
The women, among the more than 250 at the Alabama Department of Corrections facility in Mount Meigs, also crocheted about 150 hats for patients at the Montgomery Cancer Center who have lost their hair. The rest were sent home as gifts for family members, but the women have no intention of halting their handiwork.
In May, Espanolia Nicholson-Rowe, a correctional officer at the facility, got permission from Warden Edward Ellington to start a class that would teach women how to crochet. About 10 women participated in the first four-week class, and many others have participated in the four other classes that have been held.
And since then, the craft has become a therapeutic outlet for the women.
“There are a lot of us that are crocheting for the (Stella’s Voice) project,” said Leslie Fillingim, who has been incarcerated for 20 years. “It’s good for the soul because it gives us a chance to give back to the community.”
For Sharon Westbrook, who has been incarcerated for 14 years and crocheted at other correctional facilities in the state, it helps her pass time and cope with stress.
Westbrook said she has a full-time day job working in maintenance at the facility, but a lot of women either have part-time jobs or no jobs at all, and so they don’t have anything to fill their time other than reading books or watching television.
“It keeps our mind occupied,” Westbrook said. “It keeps us from dwelling on home and the things around us. We can focus on positive things.”
Kelley Parris-Barnes, director of the State Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and a volunteer in the Alabama prison system since 2000, has been volunteering at the Montgomery Women’s Facility for two years. It was her idea to start the project for Stella’s Voice.
Parris-Barnes said she is on a Department of Justice task force to stop human trafficking in Alabama with representatives from Stella’s Voice.
She said it’s easy to look at the population of incarcerated women — and men — and think, “out of sight, out of mind.” But seeing the kind of impact something as simple as crocheting can have helps people see that they’re human too. Giving the women something to focus on, especially newcomers who may be stressed out about being away from home during the holidays, helps them heal, she said.
It keeps women out of trouble and serves as an incentive.
“My dream is that they heal inside, so when they go outside, they can reintegrate into their support system,” Parris-Barnes said.
For Tozzi, crocheting hats, scarves and mittens for people in need has given her a sense of purpose. She said being in prison can be dehumanizing, and it’s so easy to “become just a number.”
“So many times, we climb on the pity pot and think about how horrible life is,” Tozzi said. “But we have to think about the children who are freezing and being sold into sex slavery.”
Fillingim, who learned how to crochet in the first class six months ago, said she didn’t know how good helping others would make her feel. She said being able to make beautiful things for others — especially hats for women suffering with cancer — makes her happy.
“We’re hoping the love we put into this will generate into society,” Fillingim said.
And the ladies don’t just crochet any old thing. Even though yarn is limited, they mix colors when they can and make things that someone would want to wear. They take pride in their work.
“We make pretty things that we would want to wear,” Tozzi said. “I want to make a difference for someone else.”
Rowe said seeing how the women responded to crocheting has helped her grow personally, professionally and spiritually. She said when she came up with the project, she immediately realized it was something they needed to release stress.
“Seeing them do something meaningful for someone else as well as themselves overwhelmed me,” Rowe said. “It may sound trivial, but this is something big.”
Parris-Barnes said women are constantly crocheting — in their beds, in common areas, while standing in line at the canteen.
The women have access to a Herrschners craft catalog that they are allowed to order a small crocheting kit from. Rowe said because the yard and crocheting hooks aren’t paid for by the Department of Corrections, she’s spent a lot of her own money going to craft stores to buy as much clearance yarn as she can find. She doesn’t want them to run out.
Parris-Barnes also contributes yarn, and tries to collect as many donations as possible. She doesn’t want them to run out either.
“I love to see them work,” Rowe said, adding that she’s never had to take anyone out of the class for misbehaving. Rowe said she keeps track of the yarn she gives out so some don’t take advantage and try to sell or use the yarn as a means of bartering.
Tozzi, Fillingim and Westbrook serve as mentors for other women at the facility. They also make sure others don’t abuse the privilege because crocheting means a lot to them. Westbrook said a lot of the younger inmates call her “Momma” and look up to her.
“It’s our passion,” Westbrook said. “It’s our therapy.”