Making a difference behind bars

Prisoners spent five weeks making more than 120 wooden toys for needy children this Christmas....
Prisoners spent five weeks making more than 120 wooden toys for needy children this Christmas. Photos: Craig Baxter
More than 120 children received toys this Christmas from an unlikely source.

A handful of prisoners undertaking the Otago Corrections Facility’s (OCF) carpentry course spent five weeks sawing, chiselling and sanding to make the season a little more festive for those in need.

Nearly 100 toys were distributed through Angel Tree — a charity which supports children who have had a parent incarcerated.Another 30 were delivered to Dunedin Hospital to brighten the days of those spending Christmas in the children’s ward.

Dunedin Santa Parade trustee Michelle Ellwood, who organised the delivery of the presents, said the children loved the surprise.

"It was just a wonderful thing to be a part of," she said.

Carpentry tutor Mark O’Kane says he gets a ‘‘buzz’’ seeing his students’ self-esteem rocket....
Carpentry tutor Mark O’Kane says he gets a ‘‘buzz’’ seeing his students’ self-esteem rocket. Photos: Craig Baxter
OCF carpentry tutor Mark O’Kane said it was the fourth year of the toy-making initiative  and for the first time students had progressed to building mini-motorbikes among the bespoke gifts.

He said making toys was particularly difficult because of the safety requirements.

Prisoners usually came to him knowing "absolutely nothing" and had to master each tool before they could progress to the next.

"It constantly amazes me. They start off with very little knowledge and they just love learning the new skills," Mr O’Kane said.

Many of those who ended up in the workshop had never achieved anything or received praise, he said.

"That’s the big thing.  Seeing their self-esteem and pride in their work gives me the buzz."

One of those inmates who had blossomed was Karl (his name has been changed to protect his identity).

One prisoner on the OCF carpentry course is challenging his tutors with his skill level.
One prisoner on the OCF carpentry course is challenging his tutors with his skill level.
He told the Otago Daily Times he was coming to the end of a two-and-a-half-year sentence.

Although he was not planning on ending up behind bars again, he said the stint had taught him a lot.

"Sometimes learning to put a bit more effort into what you do sort of helps; it has for me, seeing the end product, seeing the good that comes from putting in that work," he said.

"I’ve used this place to get as much help as I can and it’s so far paid off for me."

Karl’s message to prospective employers was to give those with a criminal record an opportunity.

"Some people change. You’ve just got to give them a chance and there are a lot of talented people in here. [They’re] quite capable of contributing," he said.

Assistant prison director Gill Brown said carpentry students had made pest traps and bird transporters for Doc, as well as  corporate gifts.

Partnerships with outside agencies were "huge".

"We want to be doing things that are meaningful," she said.

rob.kidd@odt.co.nz

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