Every month, the Jefferson County Jail threw away about $5,000 worth of worn out inmate uniforms, bed sheets, pillow cases and other everyday linens. Then, last fall, staff members came up with an eco-friendly way to recycle the cloth: They’re turning it into pet beds.
Jail employees continually search for ways to keep inmates busy. For example, one inmate folds shirts, one loads the washers and another is taught to mend slightly worn or torn linens for “re-circulation” within the jail. Before September, when a garment or blanket was overused, it was trashed and ultimately found its way to a landfill. Now, the linens are sanitized and an inmate cuts and sews the material to make comfortable, patchwork beds of various sizes for homeless dogs and cats at Foothills Animal Shelter.
“This is a project that allows the inmates to develop soft skills and contribute back to society, while also providing for dogs and cats,” said Jeffco Sheriff’s Office Detention Services Division Chief Rob Reardon. “We’re not going to have them build rockets or anything in here. We’re going to have them develop production skills. Even the sewing concept includes, ‘Hey, I need to figure out, with the (old) uniforms and the material that I have, how can I create this dog bed?’ That is simple, basic production.”
Since the program began, staff members have taught three inmates to sew. The current seamster said he has finished 41 pet beds. So far, 50 beds have been donated to the shelter.
“Sewing is easy. The more you do it, the more it becomes like riding a bike,” said the inmate, whose name is being withheld to protect his privacy. His father owned an upholstery shop. “To me, sitting here, sewing and making these dog beds helps me focus on my inner-self instead of everyone else around me. I sit here in my own little world, and it teaches me a lot of patience.”
Although his primary focus is to mend and repair the jail linens, he said he enjoys the creative process of building and customizing each bed with different colors, materials and designs.
“You can see so many shirts in a day, but (while making the beds) I get to use different colors and use my own mind to do what I want,” he said.
Foothills employees and volunteers say they are delighted about the newly-forged partnership. They said the animals seem happy, too. Liz Maddy, the shelter’s marketing and communications engagement manager, said she’s looking forward to further developing the program.
“Every single day, every single one of our pets gets a new bed and a new blanket. Having clean beds at the ready is super helpful for us,” Maddy said. “That way, we make sure everybody is as cozy and as comfortable as they can be. (The program) has been a huge benefit to us because it takes away some of the burden of finding beds, purchasing them and relying on community donors to bring them to us.
“I think it also creates a nice partnership with the rest of our community. We do serve Jefferson County, so to be able to receive these items from Jefferson County inmates kind of, in some respects, closes that circle. It allows us to support members of our community — incarcerated, or otherwise. We’re certainly grateful,” Maddy said.
Right now, the jail has enough space for one sewing station, so only one inmate at a time acts as seamster until he’s released. Reardon hopes to expand the program to include more inmates, male and female. At any one time the jail has between 1,250 and 1,300 inmates. He said the jail could have three or four inmates making pet beds at once — it already has the machines — and he’d like to see the inmates’ opportunities expand to include other skills, like mattress recovering and ServSafe certifications, to increase their likelihood of future employment. He’s open to expanding the pet bed program across the Denver metro area and potentially the state.
“It’s all a function of capacity — how much material we have, how much space we have and what the need is,” Reardon said. “If we make more than Foothills could ever take, we would obviously go to other entities. I don’t see us stopping this.”