Items knitted or crocheted by members of American Legion posts 201 and 202 | Courtesy IDOC
BOISE — Members of two American Legion posts are knitting and crocheting blankets for veterans, and they are doing it from behind bars.
In 2003, Albert Ciccone, 43, a United States Air Force veteran, murdered his pregnant wife. Ciccone was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Today, he is the post commander for American Legion Post 201 in the Idaho State Correctional Center.
Ciccone and 43 other incarcerated veterans who are members of Post 201, as well as 17 members of Post 202, spend their days working on service projects in the Idaho State Correctional Institute. This includes everything from fixing donated bicycles, cleaning toys in the prison’s visiting room, and knitting or crocheting blankets and stuffed animals.
“As a group, we believe in rather than doing our time, we want to serve our time and be actively engaged in our own rehabilitation. Rather than waiting for someone to tell us what to do, we’d rather be proactive,” Ciccone told EastIdahoNews.com.
They give the items they make to the Idaho American Legion, which donates them throughout the state.
“I just delivered 60 newborn baby blankets to the battered women’s shelter in Boise. We also donated another 85 lap blankets to both the Pocatello veteran’s home and the Boise veteran’s home,” Immediate Past Commander and Idaho American Legion State Adjutant Charles “Abe” Abrahamson said.
Abrahamson helped form the two posts in Idaho’s prisons.
“I was in the Marines, and I was in a combat unit my whole time. The day I got out and they handed me my papers and I drove back to Mountain Home, Idaho, was a shock to me,” he said. “When you go out to the bar or you go out to an event here, you’re all by yourself — where for five years, I had all my friends and buddies with me. We took care of each other. We looked out for each other.”
He said he saw U.S. service members returning home who experienced trauma and didn’t have the support of their battle buddies anymore, so some would turn to drugs and alcohol, and, in some cases, get in trouble with the law.
“It leads up to why we have 22 veterans a day committing suicide — because they’ve lost that comradeship and there are not their buddies to look out for them anymore. They’re on their own, and they feel alone,” Abrahamson said.
With that in mind, Abrahamson went to the Idaho Department of Correction and told administrators he wanted to create an American Legion post to offer incarcerated veterans the comradeship they’d had while they were serving in the military. He and IDOC agreed to create Post 201.
The post received its permanent charter in June.
“It’s a great connection to have to your past, and it re-instills a bit of pride in you. It gives you a sense of purpose, a reason to get out of bed every day and do well,” Ciccone said.
Abrahamson said Post 202 started just a couple of months ago.
“The product of our posts, between the members, is service hours to help their community, state and nation. But the product of the posts, if they were a business, is to rehabilitate and re-integrate these veterans into society as productive members once again,” Ciccone said.
In addition to being engaged in service projects, they have also created an honor guard that raises and lowers the U.S. flag every morning and whenever the prison invites the public to visit such as for the annual car show and graduations when inmates earn their GED.
“They’re always able to kick it off with some class,” ISCC Warden Jay Christensen told EastIdahoNews.com. “They do a very nice job of it, and they take a lot of pride in it. It’s become a focus of theirs. They’re really focused on what things they can do for the better.”
Ciccone said the service projects didn’t start when the posts were created. He said he and a small group have always done some informal service through the prison’s chapel.
“I had learned how to crochet. And I was, you know, a bit prolific in the crocheting and I was making too much for my family. I had too many crafts to give them,” Ciccone said.
When he joined the Inmate Dog Alliance of Idaho with the Idaho Humane Society, he and another inmate veteran decided they wanted to help offset the costs of spaying and neutering and purchasing the dogs’ medications by donating their crafts so they could be sold or auctioned.
“We did that for five years back around 2010 and it sort of carried over and caught a little steam. Other guys were starting to get interested in what we were doing, and they were contributing as well,” Ciccone said.
A group of inmate veterans who had begun doing service with Ciccone were sent to Kit Carson Correctional Center in Colorado due to overcrowding around 2012. There, they started an informal group of Idaho veterans and continued doing service projects. At one point, they raised more than $10,000 and donated it to local Colorado and Idaho charities.
When the group returned to Idaho a few years later, some of them began meeting weekly in the chapel at ISCC where Ciccone was housed. Ciccone got with them, and they had more formal meetings and did more service projects. They called themselves Idaho Gives, a Group of Incarcerated Veterans Engaged in Service. He said that was around 2016.
“We continued to do our charitable acts,” Ciccone said.
Eventually, Idaho Gives became American Legion Post 201.
“I’m proud of what these guys do,” Abrahamson said. “These guys are in a situation that none of us would ever like to find ourselves in. Separated from their family, alone, locked up. Being able to communicate and associate with other veterans, they get to build that camaraderie that they lost when they left active duty.”
Christensen said the American Legion members in the prison are always looking for new projects they can do.
“If nothing else, I have to slow them down because they’re so energetic. They’ve got so many ideas of things they want to do,” Christensen said. “I took a check down to Idaho Make A Wish Foundations last year. I believe it was for about $1,200 that was left over from their fundraising.”
Since June, the legionnaires have logged 6,664 hours of community service as a group, Ciccone said. He’s hoping they’ll have 15,000 hours by next May.
“It’s bigger than we expected, but we have a captive audience who’s really ready to go,” Ciccone said.