Hand-made help

Risk assessment officer Kelly Smith test drives the prisoner-designed swag

Risk assessment officer Kelly Smith test drives the prisoner-designed swag

Some homeless Tasmanians have slept warmer and drier this winter thanks to an innovative joint project between UnitingCare Tasmania and female prisoners at Tasmania Prison Service.

Initially the inmates aimed at producing soft toys from waste material collected by UnitingCare’s Op Shops. This project soon changed direction when it was realised that the Queensland-produced swags made available for the homeless did not fulfil their purpose in Tasmania’s harsh winter conditions.
With the volunteer support of an experienced quilter, the prisoners designed a ‘new look’ swag. The swags incorporate a high density mat and a quilt stored in a spinnaker covered carry bag to keep it dry.

The women have designed the carry bag so that it can be stuffed with other clothing to form a pillow. There are pockets inside the swag for the storage of valuables such as a mobile phone.

The new swags have been well received according to UnitingCare’s Community Services Manager Lois van Eimeren.

“We have given some out already and the feedback has been very positive. Importantly, we know it is a product which is going to keep people warm and dry,” Ms van Eimeren said.

“It is a project that could never have happened without the support of the Tasmanian Prison Service and, just as importantly, the inmates.”

Swags are part of the Hand Made With Pride project, one of nine community service activities currently operating within the walls of the prisons located on Hobart’s eastern shore.

As well as UnitingCare and the Tasmanian Cancer Council, Hobart and Launceston’s neonatal wards have been recipients of hand-crafted items over the last year. In fact almost 900 separate items have been produced in the last 12 months.

Hand Made With Pride draws its name from the first letters of the Mary Hutchinson Women’s Prison. But it is more than just a catchy marketing name.

It epitomises the attention to detail put into each item by the prisoners involved, some of whom had little or no experience with sewing when they first began.

Jo* said she never expected to be able to learn the required skills when she tackled her first pot mat in February. She has progressed to making quilts with intricate designs, the sort of work which sells at markets for about $100 a pop.

“I did not think I could do it at all,” she said.

“I am proud of what I have achieved and want to continue making quilts. I want to make one for my two-year-old son.”

Jo said the new skills she had learned had improved her confidence and she now believed nothing was beyond her.

She enjoyed the opportunity to assist people who are doing it tough, even though many would suggest that there are few tougher environments than being behind the walls of a prison.

“The work makes the day go quicker and it is nice to know you are helping people, particularly the disadvantaged,” she said.

Fellow inmate Lou* said the sewing area was a peaceful place within the prison.

“I don’t have to come here every day but I want to. It is challenging work but I can see improvements every time I make something.”

Lou sees the work as something she can continue once released to supplement her income.

Department of Justice Reintegration and Transition Consultant Steve Graham said approximately eight female prisoners had undertaken the HMWP project and some had completed their Certificate Two in Fashion and Design from TasTAFE.

Beaming with pride, Mr Graham spoke about the immense thought the prisoners put into the design side of their work with the end user always at the forefront of their thoughts.

“Nothing goes out the door unless the girls are completely satisfied with it,” he said.

Mr Graham said the project was an opportunity for inmates to give back to society as well as pick up some valuable skills.

Funding for the Hand Made With Pride swag materials is currently provided through UnitingCare’s Emergency Relief budget. It is hoped that funding through Share will allow the joint project to continue into 2015.

Donations to the prison project can be forwarded to UnitingCare Tasmania.

* Names have been changed.

By Nigel Tapp

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