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ST. CLOUD, Minn. - As a 17-year-old, Isiah Thomas of St. Paul has had to make his way in the hard world of St. Cloud prison. How's he managing?

By quilting, among other things.

"Me, personally, I never did nothing like it," he said from behind the gray concrete walls where he's serving 33 months for witness tampering, auto theft and attempted burglary.

"But I enjoy it. It's quiet, it's mellow, and the stuff is donated to some people who need it."

Thomas is one of dozens of inmates in at least three Minnesota men's prisons who are passing time quilting and knitting.

Some, like Thomas, do it in mandatory programs for young convicts at St. Cloud and for sex offenders at Moose Lake state prison. Others, such as Francis Spurgin, a first-degree murderer in his 25th year of a life sentence, take it up on their own.

At Lino Lakes prison, Spurgin, 46, knitted six caps for newborns in Malawi and Bangladesh, where heat loss can be a major contributor to infant mortality.

But Spurgin was far outdone by fellow Lino Lakes inmate Teddy Haviland, a convicted check forger and swindler who knitted 200 caps for Save the Children, the Washington, D.C., charity that has distributed 280,000 infant head caps throughout the Third World.

Haviland, scheduled for release from a 9½-year sentence Aug. 2, is probably the king of Minnesota prison handicrafters. In addition to the caps, Haviland just stitched his 182nd blanket for charity.

"I like to keep busy," said Haviland, 42. "Time goes by a lot faster. I've taught some of the biggest, baddest dudes in this place how to knit."

Lino Lakes warden David Crist said he approves of "anything that keeps offenders constructively occupied in their free time."

Quilting was introduced to St. Cloud prison about five years ago by a staff teacher, Karol Bruggeman, an avid quilter from Sauk Centre.

"I think we were all a little skeptical about how the inmates would receive it," said warden Patt Adair. "We were pleasantly surprised that it was something they enjoy."

Isiah Thomas confirmed that.

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"I'm a real creative type person anyway," he said. "It's a kick taking little scraps of stuff and putting it together."

He brushed off suggestions that doing "women's work" could draw disrespect from other inmates.

"I was always my own leader," he said, adding that while at least 15 hours in the weekly quilting circles are mandatory for St. Cloud prisoners under 18, "if you want to drop it, it might be a little consequence, but nothing major."

Thomas and about a dozen fellow inmates at St. Cloud gather weekly to spend an hour and a half piecing bits of cloth into pleasing patterns.

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A like number of older men meet in a voluntary quilting circle on Wednesdays as part of St. Cloud's restorative justice Whole Heart Project, which contributes the proceeds to charity.

Over the years, more than 120 inmates have learned quilting as part of St. Cloud's program for youthful offenders, which also includes art, music and training for anger management, critical thinking, getting out of gangs and high school diplomas or GEDs, Adair said.

The scissors and small, sharp needles used by inmate quilters are potential weapons, but Adair said there's never been a violent incident with them. To be safe, she said, the sharp objects are "inventoried, accounted for and locked in a toolbox at the end of the class."

Knitters at the prison are more constrained. They have to knit and purl with plastic needles, not the metal or bamboo ones favored elsewhere.

Handcrafts are a common pastime at women's prisons throughout the nation, including the women's prison in Shakopee, which receives donated materials from the Minnesota Knitters' Guild. And the whole country seemed to take notice when style maven Martha Stewart emerged from a federal women's prison in West Virginia two years ago wearing a scalloped gray poncho crocheted by a fellow inmate.

But incarcerated men busying their hands with thread, needles and yarn have received little public attention aside from scattered published reports of handcrafting at prisons in Colorado, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Still, handcrafting is spreading in Minnesota institutions. At Moose Lake prison, as many as 30 sex offenders have joined a knitting group that creates multicolored afghans, mittens, sweaters, hats, scarves and baby blankets for various charities.

"They're paying penance with yarn," said prison spokeswoman Candy Adamczak. "They're making a product they can give back to society."

Haviland, who will begin training to become an addition counselor when he's released, said he felt the need to improve himself while in prison.

"At some point you have to ask: 'Am I doing something that makes me proud or that makes others proud of me?'" Haviland said. "If we can't contribute to the community in here, we can't expect people to accept us as contributing members of society when we walk out."

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