Marion Federal Penitentiary prisoners donate crocheted hats to cancer patients

By Gus Bode

Not only have several prisoners at the Marion Federal Penitentiary found a new creative outlet, but they are using it to give back to the community.

Eleven maximum-security inmates at the penitentiary have volunteered to hand crochet hats and other items, which will be donated to the American Cancer Society and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois for cancer survivors and children victimized by methamphetamine homes.

The two organizations approached Kevin Murphy, executive assistant at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, early this year offering to form a partnership in which materials such as yarn and crochet hooks would be donated to the inmates.


“Essentially we were looking for a way to give the maximum-security inmates an opportunity to give back,” Murphy said. “Often times inmates do want to give something back, but it is difficult to afford them that opportunity when they are in maximum security.

“I’ve known many of the inmates for years, and they were excited about it.”

Jane Otte of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois conceived the idea when she read an article in the magazine, The Lutheran, about people making caps for cancer survivors. As the executive director of Prisoner and Family Ministry for Lutheran Social Services, Otte realized it would be easy for people in prison to make these caps.

“It is the first time this has ever been done in any Illinois prison,” Otte said.

While prisoners made caps and scarves for cancer patients, they made stuffed animals for children coming from methamphetamine homes, many of whom were forced to leave most of their possessions behind because the chemicals used in producing meth absorbed into such things, Otte said.

“These toys are some of the first things they’ll get when they leave home,” Otte said. “It means a lot to the kids, but it also means a lot to the inmates making the toys.”

The inmates work on their own time, either in their cells or in common areas, Murphy said.


Otte, along with volunteers Karen Johns and Marian Wright-Cavitt, met with the inmates participating in the new project on Feb. 25 when Murphy held a reception to celebrate the inmates’ accomplishments.

As a breast cancer survivor and volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, Johns attended the reception wearing one of the caps made by the inmates and provided them with insight into her cancer experience. Johns said the inmates were attentive and polite.

Reach to Recovery is a program that helps patients cope with the process of cancer treatment, Johns said.

Johns said that about two weeks after the first chemotherapy session, a patient begins to lose hair in clumps, and so it helps to have a hat or wig to wear. While this may be daunting for the patient, Johns said the Reach to Recovery program is there to provide assurance that these things are normal.

“They didn’t just knit regular hats either,” Johns said, “These hats are cute and very creative. Some of them had scarves to match.”

Wright-Cavitt volunteers for the “Look Good … Feel Better” program, which is a free public service that helps women recently diagnosed with cancer offset appearance-related changes from cancer treatment, and she said the program is going to help distribute the caps made by the prisoners.

“We come with the program to restart the engine for preparing for the outside world,” Wright-Cavitt said. “Even though they are not well, if they look good, they feel better.”

“And that’s the purpose of our program … to keep the moral of the ladies up,” she said.

Murphy said it is a great relationship and one that he hopes will expand in the next several months.

“We hope to get more inmates involved with work opportunities and we’d like to establish more partnerships within the community,” he said.