MITCHELLVILLE - It's busy inside Santa's workshop.
About 10 women are working toward a holiday deadline, cutting fabric and sewing a total of 500 cuddly rag dolls that will soon be placed under Christmas trees for needy Iowa children.
This branch of Santa's workshop is at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women at Mitchellville. The state prison facility is surrounded by a tall metal fence topped with razor wire that is regularly patrolled by correctional officers.
Angela Socarras sews the hat down on a male doll. Inmates at the Mitchellville,Iowa, state women’s prison are making 500 rag dolls for needy children for Christmas presents. Some of the initial work on the dolls is being done by inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison with the rest completed at Mitchellville.
Inmates working here for Iowa Prison Industries normally spend their days doing upholstery work and making blue denim pants, providing computer-imaging services and performing other chores. But during their spare time, some are volunteering for a labor of love to make rag dolls for this Christmas season from scrap materials.
"This is wonderful. It feels good to be able to do something and to know that other people will find joy out of it," said Devon Perkins, 29, of Iowa City, who is serving time for second-degree robbery. She had never operated a sewing machine before entering prison; now she is a lead seamstress at Mitchellville.
Staci Boerjan, 32, of Mason City was convicted of intent to deliver methamphetamine. She had been a certified trainer for restaurant servers in the past. Now she deftly uses a scissors to cut colorful fabric for dresses and bonnets that will adorn the dolls.
The rag doll charity project was started last Christmas season by Roger Baysden, director of Iowa Prison Industries, which employs inmates in manufacturing, farming and private sector work programs. The bodies for the dolls are made by male inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison. The doll clothing is sewn at Mitchellville.
The inmates last year made 250 rag dolls that were donated to churches, family shelters and other places that help disadvantaged children. The production is increasing to 500 dolls this Christmas, and Baysden hopes the inmates will make 1,000 for next year's holiday season.
No taxpayer money is spent on the dolls. They are made entirely from fabric scraps remaining from upholstery work and blue jean manufacturing, as well as leftover mattress stuffing, said Shawn Preston, Mitchellville's Prison Industries manager. The faces are printed on the dolls using prison equipment.
There are multiple benefits from the program, said Betty Brown, administrator of victim and restorative justice programs for the Iowa Department of Corrections. Everyone who goes to prison has a victim - even if it is only the inmate's family that suffers. By making rag dolls for needy children at Christmas, the inmates learn to develop empathy and compassion for others, she explained.
This will be the first Christmas in Iowa's prison system for Jennifer Moore, 19, of Burlington, who has served four months behind bars for a burglary conviction. She said it will be tough being away from her family, and she isn't quite sure how to deal with it.
Moore said she feels good about helping make the dolls and making at least one child's life a little better at Christmas.
"I like this a lot. I mean, if I was a kid, I would be very grateful," she said.