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John Wilson, Deseret News
Danny Pitcher discusses the crochet program at the Utah State Prison earlier this year. The inmates have been working hard on crocheting blankets for local veterans in need.

DRAPER — For someone cooped up in a hospital, a gift is often a welcome surprise, especially one from a stranger.

For Vietnam Navy veteran Brian Mildenhall, who is a patient at the Veterans Medical Center in Salt Lake City, it’s little things like handmade gifts that make him feel remembered. In honor of Memorial Day, he was presented with a crocheted blanket made by inmates at the Utah State Prison.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m totally overwhelmed,” he said. “This just gives me hope in humanity.”

The inmates have been working hard on crocheting blankets for local veterans in need — and crocheting is actually a popular prison pastime.

Danny Pitcher first picked up a hook and yarn over a decade ago in 2002 while inside the state prison in Gunnison, where the crochet program started. He's now in charge of the classes at the Draper prison.

“We have about 70 crocheters total,” Pitcher said. “They make a lot of things — anywhere from booties to hats to blankets to scarfs. It’s amazing how many inmates come here and learn how to crochet.”

Pitcher tries to recruit as many inmates as he can. For many of these prisoners, a simple creation — one loop, one square, one stitch at a time — gives them a purpose.

“It’s a diversion for them,” Pitcher said. “It takes their mind off of their misery and it allows them to do something creative and give back to the community, which is so important for people incarcerated.”

“When I found out it was for the VA hospital, I jumped on it,” said one prison inmate. “Because I got family that’s in the military, friends, and so it’s a big thing to me, you know, it gets me a little choked up sometimes.”

Volunteers gave out 150 blankets on Monday at the Veterans Medical Center, all made by inmates at the prison. The handcrafted blankets had intricate designs on them, including stripes, stars, words and aircraft carriers.

When Mildenhall found out where his gift came from, he became overwhelmed with gratitude.

“How can you say thanks to that?” he said. “I know, because I’ve been in prison, so I know what it’s like.”

While in prison, Mildenhall also used to crochet as his escape.

“I had a plastic coat hanger that I broke and fashioned it into a crochet hook,” Mildenhall said. “I know how it feels, and I know how to be grateful for the things you take for granted so much in your life.”

For many of the prisoners, making and giving a simple gift can be just as meaningful to them.

“If it’s for a cause like that, I'll do whatever it takes,” said one prison inmate.

“We just want them to know we are all thinking about them,” another inmate said.

“Without them, we couldn’t have all the liberties we have,” said an inmate while crocheting. “Even though we’re where we’re at, we still have all these rights and freedoms that without them, it wouldn’t be possible for us.”

Contributing: Tracie Snowder