HELENA — A plastic coffee mug with worn, pealing stickers displaying the message “Freedom is Not Free” sits on a desk in a classroom at James Crabtree Correctional Center.
Behind the desk is a man dressed in gray, the word “Inmate” stamped across his back.
He's one of nearly 50 men sitting in the room, all dressed similarly, all attending the twice monthly meeting of the prison's veterans club.
Many have been to war and have seen fellow service members die in combat. They're changed forever. Some have been inmates at the prison for most of their lives.
They converse over tea and coffee, talking about war, life at the prison and their families.
They also talk about crocheting.
The club started a flag afghan project in 2007, allowing veteran inmates to crochet flag afghans for other veterans and families of fallen troops.
The project began at the prison when one of the inmate's mothers became ill with cancer. She was crocheting a flag afghan for a family member and couldn't finish it.
Her son, incarcerated veteran Eric Fowler, finished the afghan for her and was inspired to make another for a World War II veteran. The project took off from there.
“I myself am blessed,” said Fowler, whose mother passed away in December 2010. “I was just doing time. Then my mama had this idea to do something.”
Fowler was convicted of burglary in 1996 and sentenced to seven years. In 2001, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison on counts of lewd molestation, first-degree rape and forced oral sodomy.
He has become the leader of the flag afghan project.
So far, the club has crocheted 263 afghans. The inmates also crochet stocking caps and teddy bears for orphanages in the area.
“Every one of these guys is a part of it,” Fowler said of the guys in the room. “Some of these guys actually crochet, others just walk around and give you a pat on the back.”
The project has grown with the club.
When the club was founded in 2006, it had nearly 25 members. It now has nearly 65 members, representing all branches of the military.
Incarcerated veteran Larry Neeley has crocheted 22 blankets since coming to the prison, even though he had never crocheted before incarceration.
The Tulsa native spent six years in the Marine Corps in the 1990s and was charged with first-degree murder in 2008.
Neeley has been incarcerated at James Crabtree for almost four years and has eight more years to serve.
Neeley said he loves being a part of the veterans club and the flag afghan project. The veterans trust each other.
“I don't want to know anybody in prison and I don't plan to know any of them when I get out, except for the ones I don't think are too insane,” Neeley said, referring to his fellow veterans in the room.
He said he will continue his involvement with veterans clubs in the future.
“If I ever go to another prison, I'll probably try to start some type of flag project there,” he said. “Try to branch it out a bit.”
Vietnam War veteran Eddie McCombs was incarcerated in 2007 on charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping for the purpose of extortion, kidnapping for the purpose of extortion and injury to a minor. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
He said the club and the afghan project give the veterans a sense of purpose.
“We came to realize there was a place for us,” he said. “They're (the afghans) are the best thing that has happened to most of us here.”
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Every one of these guys is a part of it. Some of these guys actually crochet, others just walk around and give you a pat on the back. ... We rely on the goodness and kindness of people to be able to do what we do. It's always nice when we receive a little help from out in the world.”