Students teach inmates sewing skills

Five college students enter San Francisco's County Jail #2 bringing used, cut-up tablecloths, wearing clothing carefully selected to avoid certain colors, only closed-toed shoes, no jewelry. When they leave, the inmates they have taught come away with sewing skills, handmade tote bags and, the SF State group hopes, interest in a new career path.

 Russell Esmus and Connie Ulasewicz sit behind a sewing machine with a tablecloth

Student Russell Esmus and Professor of Consumer & Family Studies/Dietetics Connie Ulasewicz are part of a program teaching inmates at a local jail the basics of sewing.

For six weeks, San Francisco State University graduate students enrolled in a social entrepreneurship class are teaching female inmates the basics of sewing. This pilot project, organized with the Sheriff's Department by Professor of Consumer & Family Studies/Dietetics Connie Ulasewicz and Lecturer Gail Baugh, is part of a geometry class offered to inmates that counts toward a high-school equivalency certificate. The two-hour classes, meeting on Mondays, incorporate the fundamentals of sewing into math concepts, such as calculating the number of stitches per inch.

Planning for the program began more than a year ago, when Baugh, Ulasewicz and San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi discovered an overlap of interests. While a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Mirkarimi introduced the bill that banned the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags in the city and wanted to have more reusable bags produced locally. Baugh and Ulasewicz, meanwhile, were searching for ways to reuse fabric otherwise headed for landfills. They came up with the idea of making tote bags out of stained tablecloths donated by local hotels.

"We thought, 'Why don't we develop a program that could be implemented at the city jail and teach people a valuable skill?'" Ulasewicz recalled.

The project addresses another pressing need: workforce development for the local garment industry. The average sewing worker, Ulasewicz said, is in his or her 50s.

"Manufacturing is coming back, and people want to buy things that are made locally, so we need people who can sew," Ulasewicz said. "We are teaching these women traditional manufacturing skills that they can actually use when they rejoin the workforce."

Baugh, Ulasewicz and her students went through hours of training before being cleared to lead the class, and security restrictions are tight. Ulasewicz developed an inventory list for removable components of the sewing machines, which were purchased by the Sheriff's Department for the project, and they make sure that each piece is in place at the beginning and end of class.

After six weeks, the Sheriff's Department will evaluate the program. Ulasewicz and Baugh hope it will be deemed successful and implemented on a more permanent basis -- for the good of both the city’s workforce development and her students.

"Community service learning, a requirement of the social entrepreneurship course and many others at SF State, is important for our students because it creates a connection with the real world and brings their learning alive," Ulasewicz explained.

For Russell Esmus, a graduate student in Consumer & Family Studies/Dietetics, participating in the program was a natural fit, given his experience working both in the apparel industry and with at-risk youth.

"People don’t end up in jail because they are bad people. They end up in the system because of the situations they have faced and the choices they have made," Esmus said. "Reaching out and helping those who need an opportunity is very important to me."

Since the average stay at County Jail #2 is approximately four weeks, the same participants are not likely to show up at every session. But attending the class even once could make a difference, Esmus said. "The women we work with will probably not learn enough to get a job just through this program, but the program does provide them with basic sewing skills, and we explain that they can make a living through sewing, so the impact is valuable."

While eight of the 10 women in the first class were completely new to sewing, Esmus said, they were eager to try out the machines. Their reaction? "A lot of them said that when they got their phone time they were going to ask their loved one at home to go buy them a sewing machine for when they get out," he said.

One woman, the youngest in the class, stood out in Esmus' mind. "She seemed to have the sense that this could be something she could actually do in the future," Esmus shared. "She was really inspired to finish her bag so she could use it to take her personal belongings home when she gets out."

The Pilot Sewing Project at Jail #2 began on April 6 and will continue through May 11.

-- Beth Tagawa