BOISE, Idaho — John Gout has found an unusual way to wait out the final months of his 10-year prison sentence.
He transforms worn blue jeans, bright orange “offender transport jumpsuits” and random fabric scraps into works of textile art.
Over the past two years, Gout, who’s white-haired and wears prison-issue eyeglasses, has made 25 quilts and donated them to local charities that have raffled and auctioned them for hundreds of dollars.
On March 18, accompanied by prison personnel, Gout donated eight quilts to the Ronald McDonald House in Boise. It was Gout’s first trip outside the prison walls since he left for throat cancer treatment three years ago.
“When you have too much time on your hands, you try to think of something different to do,” Gout said. “When you create something so it can be used by someone who values it, it’s a sense of accomplishment.”
He has had the time. Gout has what state officials called “a very long record” – in and out of Idaho. He was in an Idaho prison in the 1980s for DUI. His latest sentence, for felony burglary, is set to be complete in February 2011.
Other inmates do work that benefits their communities – but usually as part of an organized effort, prison spokesman Jeffrey Ray said.
Inmates in Boise train shelter dogs to be adopted out in a partnership with the Idaho Humane Society.
At the women’s prison in Pocatello, inmates make school supplies and other items for local children.
Gout is somewhat unusual, Ray said, though a couple of Gout’s fellow laundry tailors, inspired by him, have also started quilting.
“He’s not part of a program. He’s not doing this to be eligible for parole. He’s just one man, sitting by the dryer, trying to get through the day,” Ray said.
Among the quilts for the Ronald McDonald house is a Boise State quilt. Considering the materials Gout has on hand, it’s a nice coincidence that Bronco colors are blue and orange.
Prison officials arranged to have the quilt autographed by scores of Bronco athletes. It will be auctioned off to raise money for the nonprofit that houses families of hospitalized children.
Besides the Bronco quilt, he’s giving other quilts that families staying at the house can keep. One features the alphabet.
“This quilt might help a mother teach the alphabet to her child,” Gout said.
All 19 rooms at the Ronald McDonald House have been full since December, said Executive Director Mindee Plumlee.
Items like quilts – that help create a homelike atmosphere in highly unusual circumstances – are comforting for residents, she said.
Gout quilts in the corner of the laundry room at the minimum-security South Idaho Correctional Institution, where he holds the title of head tailor.
His official duties include sewing inmates’ name tags onto their blue work shirts and hemming denims. New pants are all the same length. Gout and his fellow “sewers” cut them to different sizes.
Gout keeps the scraps, neatly folded in an old box that once held a pair of Rhino work boots.
“We reuse everything around here,” said Officer Michale O’Donnell, who has helped connect Gout to many of the organizations he helps.
Gout says sewing is easy. His tailoring clients aren’t fussy.
“One thing about sewing in prison. You mess something up, nobody jumps on you,” he said.
Gout grew up selling sewing machines in his family’s shop in Salt Lake City.
He had never quilted, though, until an officer, Bill Braseth, who recently retired, attended a charity auction that featured a quilt made of blue jeans.
Knowing about Gout’s needle skills, the officer suggested that Gout try quilting. Gout insists it’s as easy as hemming.
“All you have to do is sew in straight lines,” he said. “It’s kind of like putting together a puzzle with square pieces.”
He earns 30 cents an hour at the laundry. That pays for his coffee and toiletries at the prison commissary – quite a contrast to the money his quilts bring in.
He has donated them to local middle schools, to the Elks, and to officers at the nearby maximum security building. That quilt – raffled off during hunting season, raised money for an officers’ support fund and featured a wild turkey. Gout got his inspiration from the pages of a hunting magazine.
“There’s something about the novelty of prison blues,” Gout said. “People want them.”
When he’s free in just under a year, Gout wants to get a sewing job with a local bag company.
“I’ll work my way back to society, then find a nice trailer home that’s already parked somewhere. Maybe Colorado. I’ll call that home,” he said.
He wants to keep quilting.
“And I’ll probably hang up a shingle to offer tailoring and alterations. There’s always somebody who needs a pair of pants hemmed.”