About a dozen residents on a prison unit where women get help preparing to re-enter society work on the 6-foot by 4-foot sleeping mats, which are crocheted. Each mat requires 600 to 900 bags.
The bags come from grocery store donations and supplies brought in by some employees at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville in central Ohio.
The Vineyard, a Columbus mega church, distributes the mats to homeless people living in camps through its urban ministry program. It has requested 150 to 200 mats a year.
Proudly holding up her latest mat, inmate Cristy Webb showed off the pattern of white and brown plastic coloring that she had meticulously woven in.
"When I do things, I try to put my all into it," she said. "I'm a creative person, so I like to have fun with things."
Webb, 24, said she learned how to crochet to make blankets for her kids for their birthdays. She says she is the fourth generation in her family to have been incarcerated and has been homeless at times.
She was convicted of theft and possession of drugs in Butler County court in southwest Ohio, and arrived at the prison in March 2010. She's scheduled to be released Christmas Eve of 2013.
About 100 of the prison's 2,300 inmates are enrolled in the reintegration program. They do about 120 community services hours a month.
Crocheting the mats, one of several volunteer projects the prison operates, gives the women purpose and meaningful activity by teaching them they can take care of someone else and think outside of themselves, said warden Ginine Trim.
"We're building a better person to send back to the community," she said.
Other volunteer projects include creating backdrops for local high schools' proms, crocheting receiving blankets for infants and for children in foster care and raising money for breast cancer research.
To make the mats, inmates cut the bags into strips, link those strips into circles, then roll them into a yarn-like ball, or "parn" as the plastic balls are dubbed. Inmates knit the strips into chains, and then link all the chains together. It can take up to 90 hours to complete a mat.
Churches and other social service groups around the country are involved in similar mat-making projects, said Deborah Scott with Columbus Vineyard's urban ministry program.
The church values the connection the program gives inmates with the community and the lessons it teaches as they serve a vulnerable population like the homeless, she said.
The church also appreciates the way the program connects women who crochet with others who don't but want to learn, Scott said. She said plastic grocery bags work best since other plastic bags — such as those from a department store — tend to be too heavy and hard to crochet with.
"I thought it was a really great way to recycle," said inmate Cheryl Rigsbee, who helps mentor inmates that are part of the reintegration program.
Rigsbee was convicted of theft, forgery and tampering with records in Champaign County court in western Ohio. She's serving a 15-year sentence.
The prison was built in 1916 and is the oldest operating prison in Ohio.