Needle and thread curb crime, save taxpayer money

Inmates become seamstresses

By Erik von Ancken - Anchor/Reporter

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. - Deep inside the bleak block walls and bulletproof glass windows of the Lake County Jail is a room filled with bright orange cloth, sewing machines humming with life and more than a dozen women working with purpose.

It's the Sewing and Textile room.

The room is where female inmates make and iron jail uniforms, embroider name tags and patches on detention deputies' uniforms, print T-shirts and etch glass plaques for Sheriff's Office events.

Instead of buying the orange jail jumpsuits, the jail buys only the orange raw material. It comes on large roll which inmates cut, trace and sew together to create the jumpsuit.

The raw material is a fraction of the cost of purchasing a finished jumpsuit.

The room also houses a 15-thread embroidery machine that inmates use to embroider logos.

A heat press printing machine allows inmates to print T-shirts for Sheriff's Office special events and a laser etching machine allows inmates to inscribe commemorative plaques given as recognition for service to the Sheriff's Office.

Master Deputy Linda Erving is in charge of the Sewing and Textile room.

"You know, we were spending $130 for a plaque at one time and the cost is now $25 to make it here," Erving said. 

Erving said almost all of the women learn to operate all of the machines, as complicated as they can be, taught by a former instructor at Lake County Tech.

They work in the Sewing and Textile room eight hours a day, five days a week, and earn time credit toward their release. They are all non-violent offenders.

"None of my girls have come back that have been released," Erving said. "This is a very lucrative business you can start when you leave here because of the demand for custom T-shirts and to get started you need less than a thousand bucks." 

Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell said the idea started when he noticed a deputy wearing a wrinkled uniform.

The sheriff began exploring the idea of using inmates to iron the uniforms and then the idea took off.

 "We do a great job of getting criminals off the street in Lake County, we could do a better job on the back end when it comes to rehabilitation so we do that here," Grinnell said. "It started with seeing a deputy sheriff in a wrinkled uniform and just morphed into this."

Sherry King, general manager of Phoenix Unlimited, a Lake County-based company that operates seven dry cleaning drop-off locations and a 7,000-square-foot plant in Wildwood, is recruiting future employees from the Sewing and Textile program at the Lake County Jail.

"In our production plant, that's the main thing I need -- people who can stand at a press and finish your garment," King said.

King said she would hire the women if she had openings and if they fit her need, despite their criminal records.

"I do believe they would work out for us," King said. "I don't mind because I don't think what they're in here for is going to be detrimental to what we're doing."

Most of the ladies said they've never sewn or pressed or printed before.

Alisha, a mother of a 5- and 7-year-old, said stealing a shopping cart full of groceries from a Publix landed her in the Lake County Jail.

"In the dorm part of the jail you're on your bed, watching TV, not really doing nothing," Alisha said. "But here, I'm learning to do something like this, because that T-shirt business is a winner."

Alisha was released Wednesday afternoon after her 45-day stay in jail. She said she will never be back.

She plans to start her own T-shirt printing business at her house.

"People could bring their stuff to me at home, I could invest in the machines to do it," Alisha said. 

Erving said the Sewing and Textile program works because it makes the inmates desirable and worthy of hiring when they're released. They're all given certificates that show the amount of hours they've completed in the program.

The machines in the Sewing and Textile room are paid for with proceeds from the jail commissary. 

Erving said the women can make as many as 30 jail uniform shirts in one day.

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