Though he toils in the confines of the laundry room at the Jeffco jail, the handiwork of inmate Ivan Garcia is often found in unexpected places like hospitals and food banks.
And as his co-workers dig into the daily drudgery of folding towels and blankets, Garcia sits down at a work station that typically isn’t included among the clichés that often populate jailhouse portrayals: a sewing machine.
Garcia, 27, creates everything from pillows to pet accessories using donated materials. His pillows and quilts often end up at the Jeffco Action Center, a facility in Lakewood that serves thousands of needy families. His children’s hats go to the Caps for Chemo program at Children's Hospital in Aurora.
Susan MacKay, who has been the jail's laundry supervisor for 10 years, started the sewing program in 2004 with female inmates. But more recently, a shortage of female laundry-room workers forced her to cast a wider net.
"The women loved doing it," MacKay says. "A lot of the women had kids, and they were away from them. The program was a way for them to be empowered."
Garcia, an east Denver resident, has been in jail for just under a year. On the outside, he works on custom car audio, so he has experience sewing and working with cloth.
"I figured it was similar," Garcia says.
Sewing is just one of dozens of jobs that inmates do daily to keep the jail operating. The laundry operation handles roughly 1 million pounds of laundry every year, with inmates working eight-hour shifts on weekdays.
Most laundry workers earn one day off their sentences for every three days worked. But for the more skilled jobs like Garcia's, inmates earn one day off for every day they work.
And even though male inmates are less likely to have experience at a sewing machine, it isn’t tough for MacKay to find volunteers.
"They'll jump at it because it's a day-for-day job," MacKay says.
Josette Solorio was one of the women who sewed for MacKay.
"It felt great," she says. "It made me feel that I was doing something special for those in need."
Solorio also made hats for Children's Hospital and blankets for the Jeffco Action Center. She was accomplished at crocheting before she went to jail but had to learn a bit about sewing. It didn't take long, and soon it was the highlight of her day.
"I liked to do it because of my nerves," Solorio says. "Rather than biting all my nails off, I could sew."
When she got of jail in 2007, she wanted to continue sewing for the Action Center and Children's Hospital but lacked the donated materials. She's now back in jail and still misses sewing in the laundry room.
"It makes you feel special inside," she says. "It's something positive to do."
For Garcia as well, the task brings joy to his day.
"It's fun," he says with a huge smile. "It makes my day go by quick. I come up with all sorts of crazy stuff."