Prison quilters stitch up honours

RYAN HOLDER
Last updated 11:09 09/01/2014
Fornbes and Nixey
AMY JACKMAN/FAIRFAX NZ

Honoured: Janet Forbes, left, and June Nixey, who have been visiting Arohata Prison for two decades.

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Two women who have hung around Arohata Prison for 20 years have been recognised in the New Year honours.

June Nixey and Janet Forbes have been quilting in Arohata Prison every Saturday since the 1990s.

They are volunteers from Shut in Stitchers and have been teaching the inmates from Arohata, the all-women prison in Tawa, how to make quilts.

The first quilt an inmate completed was normally sent as a gift to a grandparent, mother or child, in most cases with a great sense of pride, Mrs Nixey said.

Other quilts were donated to the Women's Refuge.

The two eager quilters were awarded Queen's Service Medals for services to prisoner rehabilitation programmes.

"We love making quilts... we are not do-gooders. Rehabilitation is a spin-off," Ms Forbes said.

But they know the quilting programme teaches the inmates more than just making quilts.

"What we do is share a skill," Ms Forbes said. "The primary thing is that we share that skill.

"We pass on those skills, but through that interaction they gain other skills as well."

Co-operation, planning, compromise, perseverance and even mathematics were collateral benefits of the quilting programme, she said.

The quilters said such attributes were essential to the success of Shut in Stitchers, the longest running volunteer programme in a New Zealand prison.

Mrs Nixey and Ms Forbes said that initially they were nervous teaching the prisoners, whose sentences range from short-term to life imprisonment.

They said they had seen their fair share of angry outbursts - unstitching an unsatisfactory quilt could do that to a person, Mrs Nixey said.

Many of the women who attend the programme are recovering from drug abuse, and some have been victims of physical abuse and are undergoing intense counselling.

Shut In Stitchers has an unwritten policy of not asking about the inmates' crimes, but that does not stop some of the women from confiding in their quilting tutors.

"It is the colour and the fabrics that break down the barriers," Ms Forbes said. "[They] give the women the opportunity to be creative, an opportunity some of them have never had."

Mrs Nixey helped found the programme, which began as a six- week quilting course. She said that after the first day "we came outside, looked at each other and said, 'Who had more fun?"'

Ms Forbes' involvement in the programme came when Shut In Stitchers was donated a load of cotton-knit fabric. Though unsuitable for quilting, the fabric was ideal for making knickers.

So she volunteered to teach the Arohata women how to make themselves knickers, and ended up sticking around.

A similar Shut in Stitchers programme has now been set up at Auckland Women's' Prison and another has been proposed for Christchurch Women's Prison.

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