Origami Inside

By Helen Holtam

The origami group in HMP Erlestoke started in July 2017 with a regular Friday morning class in the Education Department from 8:30 to 12. The aim was simply to make origami greeting cards for the men in Erlestoke to send to friends and families and to learn more origami models. We buy industrial quantities of blank cards, envelopes and cellophane wrappers. We photocopy designs onto coloured paper and cut them to size on a guillotine as we have no scissors!  

We gather in a small classroom with seven or eight chairs grouped around tables and two ancient recycled filing cabinets. The men need permission passes to attend. Prison staff must escort them from their wings, and they can be prevented from attending because of compulsory courses, adjudication, queues, medication, or even emergency prison lockdown. They arrive with homework which they say can be de-stressing, calming and a useful distraction in the monotony of prison life.  

Before break we assemble up to 300 cards working fast like a team on a production line. They are all surprisingly supportive of each other in the harsh environment of prison. We listen as we go around the group – everyone shares three good things of the previous week. The men can take 2 or 3 free cards but the understanding is that we are fundraising. 

After a break for coffee they learn some new origami models in the second session. Wayne, the main expert folder and designer, slices the paper for everyone to take cell work for the following week. Prisoners have no access to the internet or YouTube to learn new models though the library has invested in some origami books. 

The cards are sold cheaply in the prison but also around Wiltshire and privately.  All profits are given to The Friends of Erlestoke for prisoner rehabilitation. The cards have already raised over £20,000.  

During lockdown, the education department, the library and the gym were closed. But the amazing origami class members have continued to fold in their cells. In April, we donated two cards each to all 500 men in Erlestoke to write to friends and families. The governor kindly paid for the postage. During lockdown, the keen origami folders raised another £1,000.

From the Erestoke Origami participants before lockdown earlier this year:

I have been with the Origami class since its inception in 2017. Looking back, the skills and quality of origami has vastly improved since we began. In this environment, there are many challenges – huge queues and delays, noise, and a multitude of other things. Having origami to concentrate on is a helpful distraction and way of overcoming these challenges. Instead of being frustrated at a 25 minute unexplained delay, you can end up feeling calm and pleased that you’re doing something constructive and tangible to help others. There are few positives in this environment, but origami is definitely one of them. 

W has become an expert in folding meticulous card fronts for up to 30 hours a week. He is the driving force for the project inside Erlestoke; patiently organising materialsphotocopying special papers, cutting papers to size for everyone and quietly leading the group. 

E    Origami provides an escape where I can relax and yet still be focused. Whether in the class or substituting wasted time in front of the TV back in my cell. It’s not every week that you can look back and see the benefits of your time, with origami it’s right in front of you. As a bonus, money is raised to help other prisoners, win win win.  

Initially E was the education department orderly keeping careful register of our attendees, providing passes and keeping track of internal card sales. Now IN the class he is an excellent example to others arriving with huge 3D golden venture swans and stars each week for us to sell. He designed the 3D stars for the Christmas tree festival. 

I find it constructive, calming and can always have a laugh. We always learn a new fold and out of the class I always find that people are fascinated by the skill, children and adults alike. Thank you for all the wonderful ideas and skills that I have learnt.  

K has been coming for around two years. He was part of the group who entered the Koestler Exhibition and won a silver award. Recently a compulsory course prevented him from coming. He is always cheerful, encouraging and mindful of others. 

R This is a very enjoyable group. It allows me to settle my mind from a busy week. The course allows me to learn new skills and designs and challenges my creative thought process.      

Recently R has folded hundreds of small penguins for cards as homework. 

N Origami Fridays are something I look forward to. It creates a space that is positive and calm for all involved. It is a good end to what can be a stressful week. The regulars all diligently work on various tasks using their own skills and time for a good cause. I recommend it as a break from the old routine.  

M I find the class calming and productive. Helen is very helpful and respectful of everyone’s opinions and learning speeds.  

D I have been attending the Origami class for 3 weeks. I enjoy it a lot. It helps to de-stress me and also helps raise money. It is good to get together with others and learn new skills. I made love hearts last week. 

D is already proving a great asset as he is hardworking and helpful. 

A I have been part of the Origami class for about 3 months. I enjoy it and feel it is a great opportunity for people to learn new skills whilst helping a charity. I find it rewarding and I like the relaxed atmosphere of the group. I am busy fulltime as a Maths mentor from Monday to Thursday and it is a welcome break from the workload and stress it can cause.  I have also shared some of my plans in book-folding making names in books. It has helped others to make things for their loved ones. My family like the cards that I have made for them. Finally, I think it is a positive, in a very negatively oriented environment which makes time to feel a little bit better.  

A has generously shared his patterns and taught this new book folding craft.

S  I am a cleaner in the Education block and I do my cleaning rounds on a daily basis. I have often stopped and looked at the type of work that gets done here. I think it’s really good what gets produced from this class. It shows families that prisoners are doing something that is interesting and artistic. Families can receive cards from prisoners to show that they care about them.  

Helen Holtam is a retired maths teacher who has taught origami to people of all ages for 20 years. She is a committed Quaker.

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