Stitched-up inmates quilty as charged

17:00, Jul 30 2013
quilt
NEW PATCH: June Nixey is from the Shut-in Stitchers, who teach quilting at Arohata Prison, Tawa.

Behind the razor wire that surrounds Arohata Women's Prison, colourful patchwork quilts are being carefully stitched.

The Shut-in Stitchers are a group of women who volunteer their time to teach quilting to the inmates every Saturday morning.

The group has been doing so for two decades and was acknowledged for its efforts with a highly commended award in this year's Big 'A' Prison Arts Community Awards, organised by Arts Access Aotearoa. The award was presented at a ceremony at Parliament last night.

June Nixey, who has been involved with Shut-in Stitchers since it began in 1993, says quilters love sharing their expertise, and tutoring the prisoners is a satisfying experience.

"A lot of people have said to us, 'Why do we do it?' ... When you see a young woman [finish a quilt], she's so thrilled and excited about it. You see the difference in them. They say, 'If my nana could see me now' or 'If my mother could see me now'."

Initially, the course was six weeks but the response was so positive they decided to continue it. "We thought, we can't walk away from this."

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Since then, classes have run for 52 weeks a year – unless Christmas Day falls on a Saturday.

At first the tutors, all members of Wellington Quilters Guild, were apprehensive – particularly with bringing in scissors and sharp rotary cutters, but Nixey says their students are "lovely" and their fears disappeared.

The inmates' first quilts are usually for their children, parents or grandparents. They keep their second or third to have in prison, Nixey says. Others donate them to Wellington Women's Refuges.

"They've learnt something and made presents for friends and family. [They say] it's good to have people come in who talk about things other than drugs, guns and gangs. Quite often they say 'it's the highlight of my week'."

Nixey has received postcards from women who have been released into the community and are still quilting.

A similar programme was introduced at the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility in Manukau seven years ago, and Nixey hopes Christchurch will be next to take it up.

Arohata prison manager Ann Abraham says quilting teaches the women basic life skills such as teamwork, patience and discipline.

"They probably think they are just taking quilting but they are learning a whole lot of skills they don't otherwise have really. That leads to really good self-esteem and empowerment, and a great sense of achievement."

Abraham says the tutors are non-judgmental and positive – and their work deserves to be recognised. "[The inmates] are going to come back and live next door to someone and this is making a real difference to how they do that."

The Dominion Post