PERSONAL freedoms and outlets are few and far between in prison - but an innovative program at Long Bay Correctional Centre is helping its aged prisoners to branch out.
A volunteer from Sydney City Bonsai Club visits the inmates to teach them some of the finer points of the ancient Japanese art of bonsai.
The 65-year-old volunteer from Croydon, who asked not to be named, visits once a month.
Prisoners have been supplied with plants, as well as tools and fertilisers, and are provided with advice and tips on how to maintain the plants.
"Half of it (the appeal) is someone coming out and sitting down to have a talk with them," he said.
"You're helping somebody who is a lot worse off than you. Some are physically handicapped but they are still keen to learn."
The volunteer said bonsai plants required time and patience. Each tree had its own story and participants gained a sense of accomplishment from their efforts.
He discovered the art more than 20 years ago.
"I found an old fig in the gutter, took it home with me and it's still going," he said.
"They are high maintenance and you've got to keep them in the right environment and be prepared to look at them every day, or you can lose 20 years of work in a day."
Services and programs officer Bill Hamade said the program had been beneficial to inmates, many of whom had complex health issues. "It gives the inmates more purpose in their day and provides a common interest and talking point for them, which has helped them to be more social," he said.
Elderly offenders currently have about 15 plants and plan to sell them, with proceeds going to charity.
The scheme has proven so successful that there are plans to extend it to inmates from the violent offenders' section.