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An Overview of Volunteers in the Correctional Setting
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 12/22/2014

Prison wall The last major study of volunteerism in the U.S. corrections system was made in 1992 by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) of the Department of Justice. While the information is dated and somewhat limited—it was conducted as a survey, and Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Vermont did not respond—it is the best available benchmark. At that time nationwide approximately 100,000 volunteers were in service directly in correctional facilities, ranging from 20 in Minnesota to 5,000 in Ohio. If other areas of volunteer service such as central office, probation and parole, and residential community programs are considered the numbers are higher; California alone reported 18,000 volunteers across all areas of its system.

The level of support was surprisingly robust. All but five agencies provided some level of training to volunteers, in most cases developed by individual facilities. Twenty agencies provided some form of benefits such as mileage and per diem, and 13 even offered worker’s compensation coverage. Sixteen states had established correctional volunteer programs by statute.

Today many states actively recruit volunteers, and on the other side of the equation many community service groups such as the Volunteers of America and Prison Fellowship look for those specifically willing to serve in prisons. Some states have agencies dedicated to managing volunteer programs, with the Colorado DOC’s Office of Faith and Citizen Programs and New Jersey’s Governor’s Office of Volunteerism being two examples. For specifics, we will consider representative programs in a few different states.

The Tennessee DOC reports about 5,000 volunteers system-wide, serving in such areas as religious activities, job training, literacy, and family counseling. The department requires a volunteer application that includes an NCIC check; anyone with a history of sexual predation, abuse, or harassment is barred from direct contact with inmates. Volunteers must also be trained and certified in PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) compliance. The staff manual for volunteer programs emphasizes open communication, periodic needs assessment, and “strong” consideration of the requests of the inmate population in developing such a program.

The Virginia DOC reports about 4,000 volunteers in traditional facilities and community-based corrections programs, with primary employment in life skills training, family life programs, substance abuse and other support groups and counseling, religious activities, transition programs, and case management. It estimates that its program generates about 100,000 service hours annually and a resultant savings of about $1 million.

The Utah DOC reports about 1,500 volunteers (up from 555 reported to the 1992 NIC survey) in such areas as transition preparation, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), library services, educational tutoring, cultural awareness, and internships. Utah particularly emphasizes the use of volunteers to provide religious services in its facilities given that correctional staff are state employees and the department seeks “to maintain a rigid separation to respect the Constitution.”

The Washington DOC uses volunteers in both facilities and community programs with similar areas of employment: religious activities, cultural and ethnic awareness, health and recreation services, chemical dependency, professional services, reentry programs, education, mentoring, and records assistance. Volunteers must similarly undergo a background check and may not be a friend or immediate family member of any offender at a facility where they serve.

The North Carolina DPS promotes its volunteer programs from several perspectives: economics and public safety (related to successfully reintegrating offenders into the community), personal growth and satisfaction, public awareness, training and experience, and even the opportunity to expand interpersonal relationships. Volunteer opportunities include religious activities, mentoring, tutoring and training, recreational and cultural activities, assisting staff with daily work, assisting offenders in transition, and providing transportation for visiting family members or to a place of employment for transitioning inmates.

The Rhode Island DOC offers a similar range of volunteer opportunities including family visitation, education, chaplaincy, its Books Beyond, Holidays Not Forgotten, Arts in Healing, and Space in Prison for the Arts & Creative Expression programs, and reentry assistance. The department views its student internship program as an adjunct of its volunteer program and actively promotes its internship opportunities across the entire DOC, such as the Planning & Research Unit, Legal Department, Business Office, Professional Services Unit, Information and Public Relations Office, Drug Court, Mental Health Services, and Special Investigations Unit.

The Idaho DOC provides potential volunteers with a catalog of specific volunteer needs at various facilities. Its most extensive requirements tend to be for Native American religious services, as well as other underserved religious groups such as Buddhists, Wiccans, and Odinists. Other needs include Braille and sign language instruction, GED and literacy tutoring, AA and NA, and facilitators for its Financial Peace University.

The Oklahoma DOC uses a fairly specific volunteer to opportunity matching program. Most of the agency’s volunteer needs center on reentry training, religious activities, AA and NA, abuse recovery, education, and recreational and cultural programs. Across all facilities, the agency has roughly 1,200 volunteer opportunities available.

The Massachusetts DPSS has volunteer needs ranging from anger management, emotional awareness, and Alternatives to Violence training programs to various religious and Bible study groups to creative writing, smoking cessation, job search, nutrition, first aid and CPR, and even Toastmasters classes.

The National Coalition of Community-Based Correctional and Community Re-entry Service Organizations (NC4RSO) offers several reasons that volunteerism in the correctional system is important, some of which are echoed by various agencies such as the North Carolina DOC. One is the economic factor, which is that earlier reentry and reduced recidivism mean significant reductions in the resources spent on incarceration. Another is that about 95% of offenders will eventually be released, so life skills and other training increase the odds that they will become productive members of the community. Finally, volunteerism represents a “local solution to a local problem,” engaging the public in a cooperative approach to fighting crime.

While volunteers should not (and in most cases cannot) replace a paid correctional staff member, they do represent a valuable resource. Given today’s shrinking budgets, volunteers can mean the difference between maintaining and forfeiting a robust set of programs, with the resultant implications for offender morale, facility security, and successful reentry.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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