Six prisoners in the high security unit at Whanganui Prison are learning new skills while helping the community and the environment.

Since August six volunteers from Plastic Bag Free Whanganui (PBFW) have been running four workshop sessions a week with the prisoners to make cloth bags for use instead of plastic shopping bags. When the Chronicle visited on November 27, the prisoners had made a total of 709 bags.

Robin Williamson of PBFW said funding to set up the workshops was received from Te Haahi Tuuhauwiri - Aotearoa National Quaker Trust Board.

"We have been able to buy one brand new overlocker and two brand new domestic sewing machines with the funding and we would like to get more funding for another overlocker," Ms Williamson said.


"Staff at the prison couldn't have been more helpful, providing space, some resources and recruiting volunteers from among the prisoners. All [the prisoners] have a brilliant attitude and willingness to participate in this great community project."

The workshop runs a tight production line, with the prisoners cutting fabric, ironing and pinning, making handles, sewing on the logos and sewing up the bags. Four of the six already had some sewing experience.

"It's good being here and giving back to the community," one of the prisoners told the Chronicle.

"It's good being able to do something instead of sitting in a cell or being in the yard. I haven't sewn before so I've been learning new skills."

Acting assistant prison director Deb Griffiths said the project was a win-win.

"The prisoners have gained skills and feel satisfied they are contributing to a valuable community partnership project," Mrs Griffiths said.

"Normally our community projects are for low security prisoners but the Corrections staff were very keen to have something for the high security men to do and it's been really successful."

Senior Corrections officer Alan Brougham, of the high security unit, said the prisoners were "keen as mustard" and grateful that they were employed.

The fabric bags sport a distinctive logo designed by UCOL student Talula Hodder. The logos are screenprinted on to cotton drill by three prisoners in another workshop.

The challenge is finding enough fabric to keep up with demand. Ms Williamson said Philp-Wrights, Sustainable Whanganui ReUse Academy's Textile Treasures room, the Cancer Society furniture workshop and the Koha Shed had provided the bulk of fabric so far. The group had also received advice and assistance from Wanganui Home Sewing Centre.

Bags have been given to the Whanganui City Mission and Salvation Army who provide food parcels and to the Koha Shed. Some were available at the Green Party's stall at the Whanganui River Traders Market. They will also be distributed in Taranaki through the Quakers.

The initial aim is to produce 2000 bags. The project may continue after that if the group can source fabric and if there is a need for more cloth bags.

Donations of clean fabric can be dropped off at the Sustainable Whanganui office, 83 Maria Pl.