Origami Inside and Helen Holtam

In 12 years in prison, I’ve never forgotten where I was for a whole morning

…so said one of the men in HMP Erlestoke (a Category C prison for men in Wiltshire) who participated in the Origami Inside program conceived and run by Helen Holtam.
Helen, a long-time Maths teacher in London state secondary schools, relocated to Salisbury when she retired. She is also a long-time practitioner and teacher of origami – the Japanese art of paper folding. She’s been a member of the British Origami Society for over three decades. She found in origami a satisfying, absorbing, creative outlet.
In Salisbury she met a trustee at Erlestoke who organized a monthly speaker program. Helen offered a presentation in this series and got the idea of doing more. In February 2017, after several months of being vetted for prison work, was given permission to offer a Friday Morning Origami Club. The original idea was for the men to make greeting cards to sell to other men in the prison through the Education Department.

Origami cards and sculptures - Origami Inside - Origami cards and sculptures for sale online at Origami Inside - helping prisoner rehabilitation

Six to eight men showed up routinely. Prison rules needed to be respected so no scissors, no glue, and only eventually could the men be issued supplies of paper for their folding “homework.” With no budget for supplies Helen collected old music, maps, printer paper and set the men to folding. Master folder “W” used the department guillotine to cut paper to precise sizes. Together they established a weekly pattern of mounting their homework origami onto the front of cards, putting stickers on the back (“Origami Inside: Origami inside teaches prisons the art of origami to raise funds for prisoner rehabilitation”), and packaging in cellophane with an envelope. Then after a break the men would try out new patterns from diagrams and books that Helen brought in. They built a community of origami folders.
As one participant commented:

Origami cards and sculptures - Origami Inside - Origami cards and sculptures for sale online at Origami Inside - helping prisoner rehabilitation

It’s not every week that you can look back and see the benefits of your time, with origami you can see as it’s in front of you. As a bonus, money is raised to help other prisoners, win, win, win.

Soon the men were producing high quality cards and Helen persuaded the Salisbury Cathedral Shop, various cafes and bookshops in Wiltshire, Sarum College, and the Salisbury Quaker Meeting house to sell the cards. A big order from the Church of England Bishop James Langstaff for Christmas cards encouraged and inspired the men to improve their skills further.

Several perfected a Chinese folding method called “Golden Venture.” One week “J” appeared with a Golden Venture teddy bear and white swan and he taught his method to the class. “E” subsequently designed an amazing Golden Venture star.

Origami sculptures - Origami Inside - Origami cards and sculptures for sale online at Origami Inside - helping prisoner rehabilitation

In 2018 the group made hundreds of the thousands of paper dove installation “Les Colombes” in the Salisbury Cathedral. They also decorated a real tree with origami for the annual Christmas Tree Festival in St Thomas church in Salisbury. Their entries to the annual Koestler exhibition often gain commendations.

Lockdown in 2020 put a halt to all classes, including origami, and restricted prisoners to their cells for more than 22 hours a day. Helen worked with a prison staff person who lived in Salisbury to deliver materials to the prison and to bring back the folded origami. A team of Salisbury friends then did the card packaging and eventual distribution for sale. In addition, Helen persuaded the prison governor to provide stamps and the origami men provided all 500 inmates with two cards each so that they could write to friends and family.

Origami inside, paper dove installation “Les Colombes” in the Salisbury Cathedral
Origami Inside - Origami cards and sculptures for sale online at Origami Inside - helping prisoner rehabilitation

Lockdown in 2020 put a halt to all classes, including origami, and restricted prisoners to their cells for more than 22 hours a day. Helen worked with a prison staff person who lived in Salisbury to deliver materials to the prison and to bring back the folded origami. A team of Salisbury friends then did the card packaging and eventual distribution for sale. In addition, Helen persuaded the prison governor to provide stamps and the origami men provided all 500 inmates with two cards each so that they could write to friends and family.

In 2021 Helen moved to Brighton. The Friends of Erlestoke have continued the Club with a new support person on site. Helen orders and sends all the materials and the Education Department posts parcels of finished cards back to her. The selling continues with some Brighton outlets added!