Prisoners at Otago Corrections Facility (OCF) are using their new found carpentry and engineering skills to build toys for children in the community.

Carpentry Instructors, Mike Booth and Mark O'KaneThis is the first year the prison has been involved in toy manufacture. The prisoners have been hard at work with approximately 100 wooden toys being built so far.

“This has been a really rewarding project for the men,” says Otago Corrections Facility’s Assistant Prison Director Gill Brown. “The men were keen to make something extra special to brighten a child’s Christmas, as well as supporting local charities.”

The toy building enterprise forms part of the prisoners’ Level 2 National Certificate - Building Construction and Allied Trades Course with WELTEC. Through their toy manufacture, the men are demonstrating that they have learnt the relevant industry skills to the required level. This skillset includes following plans, measurement, using specific equipment and finishing.

The majority of the toys are being donated to the Dunedin Angel Tree. A few will also be gifted to local Milton preschools to either re-gift or to use at their centres.

The group of prisoners have been working on the prison toy project for around two months.

“So far we have made around 100 toys including planes, graders, cars, hobby horses, boats and pull along toys in the shape of elephants,” says Gill.

“We all know that for many families Christmas can be quite stressful, especially financially. Many of the men in the prison know this first hand, either from their own childhoods or as parents.”

A prisoner making one of the toys.Prisoner John* is one of the men working on the Christmas toys project. He is a grandfather and he knows from his own childhood and the early years with his own children just how tough things can be for families at Christmas. He came from a large family himself and appreciates that his parents did their best at Christmas.

“Christmas was a struggle for me,” he says. “I think it’s even tougher for young families today.

“It wasn’t flash, but we got by. It’s great to think that the toys we are making will do something to take a bit of the pressure off a family. There’s lots of hardship and sadness out there. I hope the toys put a smile on someone’s face. That makes it worthwhile.”

John hadn’t done anything that involved carpentry skills in the past. Since being in prison he has completed both timber processing and carpentry courses up to Level 3 and developed a real interest in working with wood.

He has been building bulldozers, airplanes and elephants. “I’ve built basically everything except helicopters.”

In addition to giving something meaningful back to the community, the toys project fits comfortably with the training in OCF prison industries.

“Building the toys is quite fiddly and the finishing is very important,” says carpentry instructor Mark O’Kane. "The toys have provided a great project for practising their skills in design and with a range of tools including skillsaws, hammers and planers.”

John is talking about getting a building apprenticeship or a job as a hammerhand on release. He is also keen to buy some tools and continue building toys for his own family members and others as a hobby.

“I’d never thought of anything like this before. I have learnt loads of new skills and have new horizons.”

"It is awesome to know that someone will have fun with this,” says John. “I have never done anything like this before and it is so cool, every kid deserves Christmas.”