Ketchikan inmates' paper cranes take flight

KETCHIKAN — Three Ketchikan community agencies recently received an unusual donation — 3,000 paper cranes — from an unusual source — the inmates of Ketchikan Correctional Center.


The scene was a study in contrasts. In the harshly yellow-lit room that serves as gymnasium and cafeteria, slightly more than a dozen inmates sat on one side of the room while half a dozen visitors — recipients and reporters — sat on the other.

One by one, representatives from Women In Safe Homes, Ketchikan Medical Center and Ketchikan Pioneers’ Home stood up to talk about what they would do with the inmates’ gifts.

Gloria Burns and Brooke Avila, of WISH, said they would use the cranes to form a mobile for that building’s stairwell.

The hospital’s representatives, nurse Marguerite Auger and Sister Arnadene Bean, said they would place the cranes throughout the hospital in order to “spread the word of peace.”

Julie Sande, of the Pioneers’ Home, said some residents had a hard time visualizing a crane, and she looked forward to showing the seniors what the paper cranes look like.

After each visitor spoke, an inmate presented a string of cranes. The ceremony was short. Many inmates chose not to attend. But after it was over, inmate Jarvis Perez told the Daily News about why he took part in the exercise.

Perez, 35, of Metlakatla, is serving a five-year sentence for felony drunk driving and criminal mischief. While taking a class in jail, he said Superintendent Jessica Mathews told him and others the story of “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.”

There’s a Japanese legend that whoever makes 1,000 origami cranes will have his or her wish granted. Origami is a Japanese artform dating back to the 1600s. Origami literally translates to folding paper.

The story goes that Sadako Sasaki was one of many children in Hiroshima, Japan, to grow seriously ill as a result of the U.S. dropping an atomic bomb there on Aug. 6, 1945. Faced with death, Sadako started making paper cranes in order to get her wish for a long life.

Sadako died after making 644 cranes. Her classmates made the rest and she was buried with them. Her death inspired a tradition, and people across the globe have been making paper cranes for peace ever since.

“So that’s pretty much what we did,” Perez said. That first night, inmates crafted 800 origami cranes, using paper from old magazines. “It was pretty good to see.”

Inmates put aside differences to make the cranes, he said.

“They assembly-lined it,” Mathews said. Five women and roughly 40 men worked over the course of Memorial Day weekend to fold the paper birds.

Perez said he still makes the cranes, and he’s pretty good at it. There are other inmates, he said, laughing, “let’s put it like this: They’re still learning.”

For Perez, it’s all about balance.

“I look at it as a type of meditation,” he said. Perez is Tsimshian, and besides origami also has a passion for Southeast Alaska Native arts. “It gives me a sense of focus.”

For other inmates, Perez said the cranes give them “a little incentive to be a part of the community.” It helps them find closure, he said; to atone.

The origami serves another purpose, Lt. David Henderson, operations supervisor, said.

“For the most part, it’s something to do,” he said. Inmates have one thing in abundance: time. It’s how they fill that time, Henderson said, that concerns corrections officials.

“They can be just as ingenious, if not more so, than people anywhere,” he said. “One of the problems with jail is keeping people occupied.”

Another problem is keeping people out.

“If you come here, we’ll keep you. But we don’t want you coming back,” Mathews said. She said that giving the inmates a chance to do some good in the community could help reduce Alaska’s, and by extension Ketchikan’s, prodigiously high recidivism rate.

“I think it’s important to tell them, ‘It is what it is, you’ve done what you’ve done,’” Mathews said, but also to tell them that it’s time to move forward.

Mathews doesn’t intend to stop at origami.

The superintendent said she’s got a line on some donated yarn and crochet hooks, which she laughingly said “gives every (corrections officer) headaches.” When she gets clearance to do so, Mathews plans to introduce a crocheting program at Ketchikan Correctional Center.

She said crocheted items could be donated to the community, much as the cranes were.

There’s another benefit to these programs, be they crochet or cranes, Mathews said.

Like many state departments, the Alaska Department of Corrections has a tight budget. Mathews said lawmakers tend to look askance at spending money on inmates. So when a program comes along at no added cost to the state, it’s a good thing, she said.

“I love this because it cost us zero.”


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