CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Jails are not known for their lavish accommodations, and the room where the women of G Pod do their work is no exception.
Situated on the ground floor of the Laramie County Detention Center, the room is as spartan as the plain coveralls the women wear: dingy white with gray trim, buzzing fluorescents overhead, the lone television set a dead, black rectangle.
Yet amid the dreary setting is a cornucopia of color: pastel pinks, greens and purples, bold Old Glory red, white and blue, all arrayed in shapes like stars, stripes, checkers, diamonds and hearts.
It's those splashes of color, the women say, that help them get through their day. And more and more, groups across the city have been coming to appreciate them as well as they're assembled into beautiful quilts and donated to charity.
The jail's quilting program is exclusive to the women of G Pod. It was launched three years ago by Laramie County Sheriff's Deputy Rick Watson as a sort of revival of an earlier program.
"They selected me as the inmate labor director, and going around, I found these quilts that had been made years ago, along with some sewing machines," Watson said.
"I started donating the quilts to Needs Inc., and they started giving me more materials."
Each woman is carefully screened to ensure they can work around needles, scissors and other sharp objects without cause for concern. And for those who are approved for the program, it has become a privilege they relish.
"Most of us work in the kitchen here, and when we get out, we'll jump straight into quilting, seven days a week," said G Pod member Jessica Jimenez, 33.
Jimenez has been at the jail for about a month; she was arrested on a bond violation and is still awaiting a resolution to her case. She finds quilting is not only a good way to pass the time, but also a way to bond with fellow inmates and to grow as a person.
"It helps them build self-esteem, pride in themselves," Watson said as he watched the group work.
"They're proud of their work," Watson said.
On that particular day, Jimenez was working alongside Sue Frerich, an outside volunteer with Cheyenne Heritage Quilters, who has been leading a quilting class at the jail for about a year and a half.
As she surveyed her students' work, Frerich noted many of the women who take part in the program begin with little experience, but demonstrate great potential that comes out as they build their skills.
"More often than not, they'll tell me, 'I haven't sewed since the seventh grade,'" Frerich said. "And it's fun to see some of the creativity that comes out of them. They just amaze me from one week to another."
Take Jimenez's latest quilt, for example: It's one of four patriot-themed quilts she has made over the last few weeks, and it's festooned with red-and-white stripe designs, pin wheeling blue star shapes and patriotic images, all entirely unique to the quilt, yet keeping in theme with the three others she's designed.
"They're of a quality that would fit in at any craft show," said sheriff's Detective Don Heiduck, who has been working to publicize the jail quilting program. "We've ended up with some really nice ones. We've auctioned some of them off to our employees and given the proceeds to other organizations, and I've started checking the local community for where we think these could be best used."
Last year, the inmates produced Christmas quilts for patients at the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center. This time around, Jimenez said the goal is to get 25 patriot-themed quilts done in time for Memorial Day so they may be given to terminally ill veterans as a "final salute" to their service.
"What's so neat about this is, the fact of the matter is we have a number of veterans who may have spent time in jail, and it's that particular connection that I think is important to them," said Cheyenne VAMC spokesman Samuel House.
"Our veterans love these gifts. And I think for these inmates, if what they're doing is helping them get through their own healing, and for them to come out of it a more well-rounded individual, knowing the time they spent actually helped to benefit someone, I think that's important as well."
Along with Needs Inc. and the VAMC, Heiduck said inmate-made quilts have also been donated to Laramie County Head Start, STRIDE Learning Center and several local nursing homes. Both he and Watson would like to donate to more organizations, but they say they're currently limited.
But that's not due to the women's skills — with nothing but time on their hands, some G Pod members can crank out three quilts in a single day. Rather, it comes down to a lack of raw materials.
Though Needs Inc. has helped some, Watson and Heiduck said the quilting program relies mostly on individual donations from folks in the community.
"Batting (the material that goes inside the quilts) is the hardest thing to get," Watson said. "I usually have to pay for that out of pocket."
"We're always looking for more, and we're taking almost anything," Heiduck added. "For the VA, they're working on patriotic-type quilts, so anything that looks red, white and blue will work, along with any type of batting that goes into the quilts."
Though most of their work ends up either donated or auctioned off, the women of G Pod do enjoy one additional benefit in that each gets to make one quilt for herself or, more often, her children.
Laci Watters, 32, who was arrested in late February for a probation violation, said she has fashioned plenty of quilts for Head Start so far, but she's been holding off on making one for her own two kids. Instead, she's waiting until she's released to put her newfound skills to work.
"I just can't give one something and not the other," Watters said. "So I'm thinking, when I get out I'll take them both to the store and have them pick the fabric out. That way I can make one for each of them."