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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Dwight Stulken knows more about yarn than the average prison inmate.

He can use a book’s worth of different stitches to make colorful hats, long hats, fuzzy hats and tiny hats, all of which find an exposed head in need of warming during winter months.

Stulken, 52, is among a handful of South Dakota State Penitentiary inmates who weave and loop yarn around a 27-pronged loom to create cozy winter creations for South Dakotans in need. The inmates work year-round and make around 5,000 winter hats to distribute around the Sioux Falls area to children and adults, the Argus Leader reported .

“It’s very therapeutic to be productive and contribute to society,” Stulken said as he looped light blue yarn around a wooden loom the size of a child’s head.

Stulken has been at the penitentiary for six years and part of the hat program for a year and a half. He and five other inmates spend about six hours, five days a week surrounded by gallon-sized buckets of colorful yarn in the prison’s school and programming building.

The hat-makers are an assorted group of men.

Their ages are diverse, as are their reasons for incarceration. They come from different areas. Their times behind bars are varied. Some face physical limitations or mental illness, but the other team members are a sturdy support system, Stulken said.

The program, started in 2003, is a win for the community, but also is a big benefit for the inmates, warden Darin Young said.

“There are a lot of tough days in here. This gives them time away from cell blocks,” Young said. “Jobs don’t fix everything, but with a task and a purpose, your behavior improves, and it can lead to a better quality of life.”

Stulken found the hat program during one of his darkest times at the penitentiary. He hadn’t had a job within the system for about 15 months. He had tried laundry duty, shifts at Morrell, back to laundry duty and gave a go at fixing wheelchairs, but nothing fit his skill set.

“I was in a bad depression,” he said.

He went to mental health services, which matched him up with hat-making.

It didn’t take long for Stulken to realize that it was a good match for him. The low-stress team environment nestled in a corner room by the prison’s open field area provides brief respite from the monotony of prison life.

Stulken was promoted to supervisor of the program about nine months into the job. His desk in the corner of the room has markings to measure hats of different lengths. The desk drawers are full of stitch books and wooden looms.

He takes pride in the NFL-themed hats tucked in a box on the bottom shelf, as well as the tiny Santa hat he crafted for the room’s miniature Christmas tree. His favorite yarn to use is red and textured and he loves seeing a double stitch make a colorful hat extra fluffy.

Any new members of the hat program usually learn from Stulken or another inmate who has been there a few years. They often work together on one hat. The finishing touches can be difficult for older hands, so some inmates hand over a nearly complete hat to a neighbor.

“We respect each other in here,” Stulken said. “There’s no fighting, no bickering.”

As he was finishing up a small minty green hat, an inmate on the other side of the room started having a panic episode. A nearby inmate put down his half-finished hat and walked over to calm him down, telling him he was going to be OK.

“See,” Stulken said, pointing a needle. “We help each other out.”

Once enough hats are completed, they are delivered by a unit manager to 20 locations in the area, such as the Salvation Army, The Banquet, Children’s Inn, Youth Enrichment Services, Teddy Bear Den and five elementary schools.

Guests at The Banquet have been able to pick up a hat for the past 10 or so years, said Tamera Jerke-Liesinger, executive director of The Banquet.

“Some of our guests are homeless, and if they can get a hat here, that’s one less thing they have to worry about,” she said. “They learn the hats come from the pen, and they usually say, ‘That’s a really cool project.’ “

Anne Sullivan Elementary principal Kirk Zeeck received about 50 hats this year. They are displayed in the school’s “store” for students to purchase with points earned for good behavior. The store, located in the counselor’s office, serves as a reward for students’ positive actions in and out of class.

“We’ll sometimes encourage students to purchase them as gifts and we can help wrap them,” he said. “It’s a great partnership (with the hat program).”

Stulken doesn’t know where the hats go once he loops the final stitch. He was delighted to learn people were actually wearing them.

“Knowing some little kid is going to get this,” he said, holding a light blue hat meant for a newborn, “offers a purpose for me to get up.”

He was even more delighted to know people wear the hats even after they learn where they were made.

“We’re not all bad people,” he said, looking to the other men in the room. “We may have made mistakes, but by being here we’re trying to improve ourselves daily. If we can help society at all, it feels good.”


Information from: Argus Leader,