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March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

I don’t think you’ll find a more macho crowd than we have here,” says Anita Hatfield, surveying her class at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione, Calif., 32 miles southeast of Sacramento. Check out Tomas Leiva, 18; he’s serving time for firearms possession. Or David Burgos, 17; he’s in for kidnapping. So why is Leiva crocheting a white blanket? And how come Burgos has taken up knitting?

The answer is Hatfield. Leiva, Burgos and 16 other young offenders—some of the most violent in the state system—are part of her sewing class, making blankets, booties and teddy bears for premature babies in nearby hospitals. The purpose: simply to do some good in the world. “We’re keeping these babies warm, helping them survive,” says 18-year-old Yer Lao, a convicted burglar and quilting convert. “That’s a great feeling.”

Hatfield, an expert seamstress and high school science teacher, started the program 18 months ago. After some early resistance it has become one of the most popular at the 734-inmate facility. Racial conflicts and gang rivalries fall away at her classroom door. “Now they hurry through their science so they can do their knitting,” says Hatfield. “It’s like therapy,” offers Dion Watts, 18, serving time for auto theft. “Very relaxing.”

So taken with needlework are Hatfield’s 46 current students that not a single straight pin or pair of scissors—potential weapons—has ever been missing from the supply room, violations that could jeopardize the program. Nor are preemies the only ones benefitting. “The students are learning respect, cooperation and patience,” says Dr. Manuel Roman Jr., principal of Preston’s on-site high school.

The married mother of two grown children, Hatfield says her youngsters seem happy to be able to let down their tough-guy facades. “When they feel good about themselves, they get into less trouble,” she says. “One kid even said, ‘Those babies need me, so I just can’t afford to screw up.’ ”

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