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Hard Time and Hemlines : Behind Bars for Rape and Murder, Convicts Vie for the Chance to Cut and Sew for Sportswear Labels

January 16, 1992|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MONROE, Wash. — Rich Dyer, a onetime nuclear foreman for the Department of Defense, tried to bury his former wife alive after she was granted custody of the couple's two children. He's serving a life sentence at the state prison here.

Angelo Pleasant, a former wrestler, shot and killed two of his coaches when he caught them arguing over a woman. He's serving two life sentences.

But Dyer and Pleasant do more than serve time. The men have new careers of sorts: They operate sewing machines at this maximum-security prison 60 miles north of Seattle. Pleasant sews pockets on fleece outerwear and Dyer sews labels for Redwood Outdoors, an independent Washington contractor.

Since 1983, the program--among the first in the United States--has been training inmates to construct everything from ski parkas to swimwear, products sold in department and specialty stores.

"This program is No. 1," says Pleasant, a burly weightlifter. "Guys would break their necks to be in this program."

Pleasant, who came here 16 years ago when he was 21, talks like a student of Seventh Avenue. He mentions Redwood clothing's "quality standards"--and likes to compare the workmanship in samples from other countries.

Dyer, a shop foreman, also lauds the program. The difference between Redwood and other prison jobs is that it's more than just busy work like making license plates; he learns a skill.

"This job has to be able to perform as a business on the street," he says. "And (apparel) is business on the street."

There is a sense of family in the Redwood program--even if that family is, at times, dysfunctional. And, by all accounts, Bessie Thompson is the matriarch.

Thompson, vice president of Redwood, says she has eyes in the back of her head, ready to pounce on any wrongdoing.

"Everyone thinks I'm crazy for working here, but many of these guys are young and are in here because they fell into the wrong crowd," says Thompson, a former production manager for Jansport. "They haven't had a positive role model until now."

She and three other women oversee the Redwood employees, who are doing time for such crimes as rape, aggravated assault and murder.

"Bessie can be tough, but she's fair," says Grady Mitchell, a former mechanic who has served eight years of a life sentence for the stabbing death of "a former acquaintance." After working in the prison kitchen and laundry, he was admitted into Redwood four years ago. Thompson says Mitchell is one of her best employees.

"When I first got the job, some of the guys would call me Bessie's boy," says the muscle-bound Mitchell as he maneuvers a split-needle sewing machine around the pocket of a fleece pullover. "Even my two sons thought I was a (wimp) for working a sewing machine. Now my sons are growing up to be more discriminating customers. When they go into a store for clothes, they always look at the construction."

Mitchell beams as he shows off a picture taped to his machine of his wife and children. His wife, a seamstress, wears a red dress manufactured at Monroe.

Most of the prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory (pop. 800) are high school dropouts with few or no skills. They mostly spend their time doing menial tasks in the laundry, kitchen or print shop, earning from 8 to 75 cents an hour. Most of them aspire to work for Redwood, which is the highest-paying job in the prison and has a waiting list of up to four years.

But the entry requirements are tough. Because of limited space, low turnover and lack of equipment, Redwood can accommodate only 40 inmates. Prisoners who are on Death Row, who exhibit behavioral problems or who suffer from mental illness are disqualified. Periodic urine analysis also weeds out drug users. Many inmates are not even considered for the program until they have been at the prison for several years and show a willingness to cooperate.

Those who meet the requirements fill out applications, which eventually go to Harry Osborne, instructor and coordinator of clothing and textiles at nearby Edmonton Community College. Osborne runs an 11-week basic sewing class at the prison; inmates are taught to make patterns, cut fabric and operate specialized sewing machines.

Upon graduation, the final training step is to work for Bessie Thompson. Some inmates sew side seams on pants and pullover sweat shirts, others add pockets and sleeves, sort products by size and box and ship finished products.

In Seattle--the nation's third largest apparel center after New York and Los Angeles--Redwood executives say the relatively small Monroe facility does a sizable business.

According to Thompson, who has worked for Redwood since its inception, the facility produced more than 50,000 garments in 1990 for such labels as Union Bay, Cutter & Buck, Eddie Bauer and Helly Hansen. These companies praise Redwood's high quality standards.

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