An inspiring story from the Oregon State Penitentiary’s (OSP) Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) featuring adults in custody (AIC) Issac Agee and Michael Issac
From one quiet, dimly lit, and isolated cell of Oregon’s only Death Row Unit, a little bird was born. This was no ordinary bird. It was an “Urban Bird” and although free of feathers and flight, it was full of hope, joy, patience, and gratitude. This is when the art of origami was introduced to one of Oregon State Penitentiary’s adults in custody.
Over ten years ago, Issac Agee had no idea that becoming a paper-folder would prove to be one of the most transformative and rewarding experiences of his life. Facing a death sentence, one of his investigators was urging for him to learn origami. Agee found this idea absurd; whether he was too cool or too tough, it wasn’t for him. Soon after the idea was presented, one of his friends received an origami book which was tossed to the back of the cell. Just after that, Agee was looking through a yoga magazine he had just received and saw an image of two hands holding a folded, paper crane. As fate would have it, a staff member, then Officer and now Corporal, Charles Parker, started giving Agee and others on Death Row little origami figures. This serendipity got Agee curious, and with the help of Corporal Parker, the little bird was born.
From a little bird evolves a dragon. This is a three-headed dragon and in Agee’s cell in the Behavioral Health Unit of OSP, it drew the attention of another AIC, Michael Issac. Initially curious about a drawing of Einstein, Michael’s intrigue was diverted, and the three-headed dragon became its own serendipitous story when the first of many conversations about origami started. With Agee as the teacher, and Michael the student, their journey began with the same little bird. And in the same way Agee was the student and started out folding several of these birds before moving on, Michael was challenged to do the same.
When he finally graduated from the little bird, he created and fell in love with the crane for the first time. From there, his practice continued, his skill grew, and he worked his way through the same book Agee had at one point tossed to the back of his cell. He finally came face-to-face with a four-horned dragon. Remembering the words of his teacher and friend, warning that the dragon was tough for a beginner, he embraced the opportunity for a challenge. He found himself in his own little quiet space, folding, creasing, following every step. Agee could hardly believe what he saw when Michael presented it to him. Creating that dragon was a symbol of stepping into the unknown, believing in oneself, and accomplishment. Michael credits that experience to Agee, who pushed him to become better and create more. That dragon was born over two years ago and is still the pride of Michael’s collection.
What is it about origami that has captured the attention of these unlikely individuals and created this space of mutual affinity and curiosity for this craft? Agee reports the level of joy he has experienced in creating origami and the influence it has had on his mental health; particularly when it comes to staying out of the darkness and loneliness. “Anytime I go somewhere where I’m feeling anxiety, I’m feeling depressed, this is uplifting. That will just be gone, and you’ll just be making this creation, and it’s so fun, and it’s positive. It gets your mind moving, it gets your fingers moving, and when you get done, it feels so good. You get to share it with somebody.” He describes it as being very relaxing, Zen, and has a tranquility to it. He sees his completed origami figures as beautiful, precious, and special. In a place like prison, it is a small act of folding paper, but for Agee, it is so much more than that, even down to adding some life and color to his cell.
What is also being shared are values and coping skills in the practice of origami. Agee has a rule that he passes on to those who become his students. If they are having a hard time with a fold, or can’t figure out a crease, he has encouraged them to relax- take a break, take some deep breaths, eat a snack, watch a comedy, and then come back to it and the fold comes naturally. They both jokingly affirm, it’s not possible to “angry fold.” Michael and Agee are also passing along the importance of respect to the BHU population by treating the materials they have been provided as valuable and sacred.
For Michael, when teaching classes, he has found tremendous value in showing by example how to persevere through the challenges of not getting it right the first time. He will recycle paper others want to throw in the trash after what they deem to be failed attempts and show them how they can still use the paper to create something nice. If there is a figure that comes out misshapen, he will go through the steps to recreate it into its intended shape and size. His philosophy is that it’s not about what they were trying to make out of the paper, it’s about what can still be made from it.
Like Agee, the mental health component of origami has been very important to Michael’s rehabilitation. He states, “It helps me in a big way. It keeps me calm. It helps me to associate with other people. Origami has changed my life. I never thought I would have a hobby that I could fall in love with. This was it.” Out of his love for this art, Michael pays it forward in kindness by giving it away to others in his unit, including staff. He enjoys bringing his creatures to life and making people smile. Through the experience of teaching, he has also increased his social and interpersonal skills which positively contribute to his rehabilitative plan.
With Issac still teaching and motivating Michael to do more, Michael has also become a teacher, and they now currently have an origami table in their unit where they demonstrate and teach other AICs within the BHU. As you can imagine, one unit of a prison can only hold so many pieces of carefully crafted origami. Most of the staff around OSP have little mementos decorating their desks. In 2022, a purpose beyond their own therapeutic benefit was presented.
When they had 1,000 cranes made, they donated them to the Center for Hope and Safety in Salem, OR and have in fact, made this donation twice. For those in the BHU, their interest in origami piqued knowing that the primary purpose in giving their origami away is to help bring joy to those who have suffered trauma or abuse, especially women and children. When asked about his hope for what these gifts bring to the recipients, Michael states, “I know that they’re happy and they see all these beautiful colors… and I can feel their expression when they get it.” He imagines the kids running around, showing them to their moms, flying them around and playing with them. “It brings joy to my heart, and I feel good.”
In February of this year, they sent another thousand creations to Monterey Park, California’s City Manager, Ron Bow, in recognition of the tragic mass shooting in January. According to Agee, the true gift in creating and giving origami away for these causes is to provide joy to others and offer him and others an opportunity to give back and help somebody who needs to know someone cares for them with compassion and empathy.
Michael and Agee continue to brainstorm ideas on how they can bring joy, share hope, and pay the love for their craft forward. According to Agee, the support and interest from BHU providers and security staff have enabled them to continue on their journey of creativity, community outreach, and positive impact. Specifically, Cpl. Parker, A. Hershman, A. Myers, and P. Ward are credited for their encouragement and dedicated support of what is now a structured origami program within the BHU. What was once a little bird and thereafter a four-horned dragon, is now an unending source of joy, peace, and hope in the form of 1,000 cranes and more.
Written by Stephanie Lane, Public Information Officer