Colorful designs from the women at Arohata PrisonA group of eight women at Arohata Upper Prison are the first women in New Zealand to achieve an NCEA Level 2 Graphic Design and Computer Graphics qualification while in prison.

The women gained drawing, graphic design, digital media and critical thinking skills during the 24-week programme which was delivered by education provider The Design School. It’s the first ever programme of its kind to be run in a women’s prison in New Zealand.

Mike Saywell, Director at The Design School, says the qualification has given the women a pathway to turn their creative talents into a career.

“The creative industries are booming in New Zealand, so the employment possibilities are almost endless for these budding designers,” says Mike.

An Arohata prisoner's design work“It’s an incredible achievement for these women, and they can use their newfound skills when they go back into their communities. As graphic designers, clients want to know what you can provide for them, not what your past is.”

The Design School has been delivering the same programme to men at Manawatu Prison since 2015.

“It is exciting that we’re now able to offer the programme to women in prison too. I’m hopeful that this will be the first of many graduations at Arohata,” adds Mike.

During their graduation ceremony, where Mike presented the women with their qualifications, the women were able to share their work with their whānau and talk about their design process.

One of the women, who admitted that previously she couldn’t even draw a stickperson, explained that the group received a number of design briefs as part of programme which included designing branding for a food truck and packaging for a model car.

The programme tutor helped the women to brainstorm ideas, but they were given the freedom to find their own creativity.

“It’s the best thing I’ve done while I’ve been in prison. This programme has truly changed my life!” she said.

“At first I was really out of my comfort zone, but the programme has taught me that no matter how big the challenge is, if you break it down into small goals, anything is achievable.

“This programme has given me hope for my future after I’m released. For someone like me who is serving a long sentence, it’s reassuring to know that I can now be judged on my skills, not my criminal history.”

There is a potential for three of the women to start work on the New Zealand Certificate in Arts & Design Level 3 qualification in September, extending their Graphic Design and Computer Graphics skills further.

The women’s success has also had a wider impact across the prison.

Alison Frost, Principal Adviser for Rehabilitation and Learning at Arohata and Rimutaka prisons says that initially there was some reluctance from prisoners to complete a 24 week course, however there is now a waiting list for the next intake

“After seeing the work our first students have produced we’ve had so many people sign up for the next Level 2 programme, it will be really difficult to select just eight,” says Alison.

“At 24 weeks this is one of our longer programmes. It is also pretty intensive as it takes place four days a week, so it has been a huge undertaking for these women.

“It was interesting to see their skills and work develop over time.  They should be really proud of the portfolios they have created – they have set the bar high.”

In addition to creative skills the programme enabled the women to develop the literacy, numeracy and computer skills.

The Design School offers programmes within the community, so the women have the opportunity to continue their training once they are released from prison.