Inmates Mend Ways--and Clothes

Female inmates at the James A. Musick Branch Jail are sewing their way out of trouble.

Nonviolent offenders doing time for drug, prostitution, drunk-driving and other offenses spend weekdays at the facility near Irvine working toward industrial sewing certificates that will qualify them for apparel-making jobs on their release.

“I have a high success rate in the sense that sewing is very therapeutic,” said Karen Encinas, 41, the jail employee who teaches the program. “Many women who come in not being interested in sewing at all leave with a sense of accomplishment.”

Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana issues the vocational-training diplomas for inmates who complete the six- and 12-week courses behind bars. To avoid stigma, the certificates do not mention that the training was given in jail.

Figures for the number of women who find work after their release are not kept, but Encinas and students provide anecdotal evidence in letters and interviews that reflect benefits.


Inmate Lisa Chance, 32, who expected to complete a four-month sentence this week with two sewing certificates in hand, said she hopes to live a life as straight as her seams when she leaves Musick.

The classes “taught me what kind of work I would like to do,” said Chance, who lived in Anaheim before her arrest for a crime that she asked be kept confidential. “A lot of people don’t believe that we can rehabilitate ourselves, but Miss Karen knows we can.”

Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Ron Wilkerson said of the program, “It’s certainly successful from the standpoint that it does provide a skill to people that have no other skills.”

The inmates’ sewing also saves Musick money.

Working in a 20-seat room, inmates craft potholders, aprons, kitchen hats and nightgowns for the jail and repair inmate jumpsuits.

Some of the handwork makes it beyond the lockup.

In October, prisoners used their industrial sewing machines--bigger and five to 10 times faster than household models--to turn out about 850,000 bracelets with the “Drug Use Is Life Abuse” message that Orange County schoolchildren wore during Red Ribbon Week.

Musick typically houses 90 to 140 women. Encinas works with 20 at a time, 40 hours a week, between teaching stints at UC Irvine, Cal State Long Beach, Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, also in Costa Mesa.

“It’s been probably one of the better experiences of my life,” Encinas said. “Talk about going where people are needy: These are some of the neediest people in the world.”