Being sent to prison is a punishment, but thanks to the work of dedicated Corrections officers and community volunteers, incarceration is also an opportunity for many inmates to transform their life.
This is the first in a series of stories about women who work and volunteer within the New Zealand corrections system.
For a decade, Mary Ann France has been teaching women at Wiri how to sew. The former primary school teacher runs Quilt-Stitch, a volunteer-led programme held inside the prison every Friday and Saturday.
Using fabric and sewing machines donated by the public, the women learn the rudiments of sewing before being introduced to the art of quilting.
“Most of the girls have to be shown how to thread a needle,” Mary Ann says.
She calls them “the girls”, although their ages range from 18 to 80.
“The Friday girls are more ebullient, more devil-may-care. The Saturday girls, who do work-to-release outside the prison during the week, are more disciplined because they are in the work scene,” she says.
Thirteen prisoners are allowed in the classroom with up to four volunteers.
“Some bring their babies. It can get a bit rackety,” Mary Ann says.
Scissors are counted out, and counted in.
They start by making a simple bag and progress to “angel quilts”, which are gifted to newborns at Middlemore Hospital. Last year, they worked together on a large quilt that reflected their lives in prison and was auctioned to raise funds for Arts Access Aotearoa’s successful art-in-prisons project.
Mary Ann says quilting sharpens numeracy and literacy skills, and provides the women with “a safe environment and a progressive achievement”.
“They have to make choices and decisions – a lot have never been in that situation before. I tell them, ‘You are women who have tons of skills that you possibility won’t know you have yet. Let’s open some windows.’ We’re just part of the deal, helping them change their lives.”
It’s rewarding, too, for the sewing volunteers. “Some drive for miles to be there, and say it’s the most rewarding thing they’ve ever done.
“I think women who have any sort of skills, or fire in their bellies, like to share. We’re not babysitters – we want to see change. We’re happy to share what’s in our head and our hands.”
Words: Suzanne McFadden