Female inmates in San Francisco sewing a way out
A new vocational class for female inmates hopes to arm them with skills to use once they're released
By Steve Rubenstein
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — The straight and narrow is what keeps someone out of San Francisco County Jail. On occasion, it’s also what someone is supposed to do on the inside, with a sewing machine.
They’ve been doing a lot of sewing on the fifth floor of the jailhouse these days, as part of a new vocational class for female inmates. About a dozen inmates with no place else to go, thanks to the double-locked doors, have been dropping by the classroom for several weeks to try their hand at assembling small shopping bags.
It’s the first sewing class for the jail, which offers academic classes but is just getting started with vocational ones.
Johnetta Dixon was finishing her fourth fabric shopping bag the other morning, trying to keep the edge of the fabric folded over while keeping her fingers out of the way of the needle.
“It’s challenging,” she said. “But it’s fun, too. It’s good to learn to make one of these. Maybe this is something I can do when I get out.”
That’s the idea, said a fellow in a business suit who dropped by the class to offer encouragement. He thanked the inmates for “helping to make this class a permanent part of the County Jail experience.”
“Who are you?” asked Elsie Hodges, another of the inmates. “Do you work here?”
“I’m the sheriff,” said the man in the suit, Ross Mirkarimi, and the inmates in their orange sweatshirts and sweatpants sat up a little straighter in front of their machines.
Mirkarimi took a seat at one of the sewing machines and tried his hand at sewing a shopping bag handle himself, but a moment of inattention sent his hemline going off wobbly and crooked.
Dixon, whose own work was straight and true, looked at the sheriff’s stitches and smiled politely, not wanting to make waves with anyone who held the key to her jail experience in his pocket.
The reuseable shopping bag project was an appropriate choice, for it was Mirkarimi who, as a member of the Board of Supervisors in 2006, wrote the ordinance that banned disposable plastic shopping bags from supermarkets. The jail is better known for iron than for irony, although Dixon did offer to sell one of her completed shopping bags to the sheriff.
“How much?” the sheriff asked.
“Ten dollars would be good,” said Dixon, and the sheriff took it under advisement.
The sewing class is conducted by Connie Ulasewicz, a family studies professor at San Francisco State University, and five graduate students who, as sewing teachers, are earning their own credit for time served.
Ulasewicz said San Francisco “needs women with traditional manufacturing skills they can use when they rejoin the workforce.” The prisoners agreed. Rejoining the workforce is something that happens only after you get out of jail.
Russell Esmus, one of the graduate students, said the inmates were in jail not “because they are bad because but because of the situations they have faced and the choices they have made.”
The students fashioned their shopping bags from material donated by the San Francisco Hilton. The fabric turned out to be stained tablecloths that were, like the students, just trying to get a second chance.