A stitch while doing time

By Danielle Nicholson

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Volunteer Karen Miller takes a weekly knitting class for inmates at Waikeria Prison.  Photo / Danielle Nicholson
Volunteer Karen Miller takes a weekly knitting class for inmates at Waikeria Prison. Photo / Danielle Nicholson

They sit around a table upon which there are balls of colourful wool strewn about along with pieces of felt and bright beads.

The sound of knitting needles clickity-clacking can be heard from one of the group members while another is painstakingly sewing a felt shape onto a piece of knitting.

Each week the members of the group get together to knit 'sensory pouches' for people living with dementia. The pouches help patients to explore their senses of touch and sight and the group will donate them to a Te Awamutu nursing home when complete.

You may well be imagining kindly grandmothers knitting the pouches. Instead, it's a group of prisoners at Waikeria's Rata Unit who have embraced the craft.

Volunteer knitting tutor Karen Miller works on site for two hours each week. When Hamilton News arrived, Karen was sitting at the table with one of the four men who usually turn up for the class.

Harold* is knitting a grey and white block, the start of another of the sensory pouches. The group, which has been operating for about two months, decided they'd knit 10 pouches and then donate them to a local nursing home. There are at least that many already complete and they're discussing what they might knit next. Slippers perhaps, or beanies for those in the community and for some for the older men at Waikeria to help keep them warm over winter.

Inmates at Waikeria Prison have been knitting sensory pouches for dementia patients.   Photo / Danielle Nicholson
Inmates at Waikeria Prison have been knitting sensory pouches for dementia patients. Photo / Danielle Nicholson

Tutor Karen has been volunteering at Waikeria Prison for about four years. She was unemployed and wanted to fill her day with something. Through Volunteering Waikato she heard about volunteer roles at the prison.

"Like most people I had had no reason to be in a prison environment. It was the curiosity that brought me here first," said Karen.

Karen originally took a Literacy 101 course and has since facilitated a number of other classes including cookery and card making.

"It's one way of giving back to the community," she said.

Regional volunteer coordinator Nadine Allen said Karen was a valuable volunteer as her skill set enables her to host a range of classes.

For now Karen is happy to continue the knitting class and her charges take obvious enjoyment from them.

Harold had done some knitting about 10-15 years ago and is pleased to have picked it up again.

He can turn out a sensory pouch in about two days, most of which he does in his cell.

To begin with he reckons they looked "pretty horrible" and he'd end up unpicking his work before starting again.

Karen has taught the guys how to cast on and off, about tension.

Octogenarian Henry* shuffles in to the class. He, too, has been enjoying the class but knitting isn't new to him.

His grandmother taught him to knit when he was five. He lived on his grandparents farm and because he had health issues, his grandmother wouldn't let him outside in the cool air. Instead, she taught him to knit.

"I haven't done a lot over the years but I've made peggy squares for blankets. The last one I made took me several years. I've made myself a few jumpers."

He's also knitted jackets for Ugandan orphans and premature babies here in New Zealand.

"I enjoy it, I find it relaxing," said Henry.

"I used to do spinning on the farm too. We'd get nice fleece off the sheep."

Henry has enjoyed decorating the pouches with buttons, felt, ribbons. As he chats he's taking great care sewing on a piece of yellow felt. His eyesight isn't the best, but he stitches are neat and tidy.

Nadine says there is another inmate who likes just knitting squares, which get sent to Operation Cover Up, a charitable organisation that stitches the squares up and sends them overseas to needy children and families.

"He wasn't interested in doing this class, but he's quite happy knitting squares," said Nadine.

Knitting classes don't happen in every unit. While Rata has a fairly mixed demographic, it's home to many older prisoners like Harold and Henry.

"We have to get permission for the equipment - needles, scissors etc," said Nadine.

Jim Watson, Waikeria's assistant prison director for rehabilitation and learning, said the knitting class fits nicely into the Corrections' ideology around keeping prisoners occupied for 40 hours a week. Sometimes that sees able-bodied Waikeria inmates being approved to work out on the surrounding farmland. Others might be tasked with tending decorative gardens around the units or the large-scale vegetable gardens.

"We endeavour to get every prisoner occupied for 40 hours a week. Some of them are in the over 65 age group... [knitting] fits into that - it's a constructive activity that keeps them busy."

Nadine said it was difficult to recruit volunteers and she's keen to hear from anyone interested in volunteering at Waikeria.

"We have a volunteer pool of about 50... we have a ukulele teacher, a literacy tutor... we will give almost anything a go out here."

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer or those who would like to donate yarn (wool or acrylic) and craft items, please contact Nadine Allen on 07 872 6700.

*not his real name.

- Hamilton News

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