Inmates and prison life have become a popular form of entertainment in recent years thanks to reality shows, true crime docu-series, and scripted television shows. But, even though you might have seen every episode of MSNBC’s Lock Up, it doesn’t mean you understand what life is really like behind bars, what truly causes many people to end up in prison, and how prison can both hurt and help an inmate.
Just like anything else in life—no matter if it’s in a business, a home, a school, a church, a hospital, a prison, or any place else you can think of—the people who work and volunteer inside the walls make all the difference in whether there is success or failure.
In the case of prisons and inmates, the people who work in a correctional setting may be even more important than most other places because what they do on a daily basis can make an impact in ways they didn’t know were possible.
While a career in corrections may not be a goal for most people, making a difference in the world is something that many try to achieve. This leads us to the topic of this blog post: can you volunteer in a prison?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
There are many volunteer opportunities available in the federal prison system. There are federal prisons in many states, and they need volunteers to help inmates readjust to life outside of prison walls and to help them find employment.
Volunteers in the BOP system are important because they can serve as mentors to inmates and help teach them different skills they need to be successful. There are numerous skill areas that need volunteers, including academic, wellness, mental health, leisure, character, and daily living.
The types of programs in federal prisons that need volunteers include:
In most states, there are volunteer programs in the Department of Corrections. Just like in federal prisons, state facilities have opportunities in education, job placement, mental health, drug treatment, and family issues.
Usually, you have the option of volunteering in just one facility, or multiple facilities if that’s what you prefer. But before you step on prison grounds, you will first have to go through training for your own safety, as well as the safety of inmates and staff.
Don’t let this scare you! Inmates treat volunteers better than anyone else in the facility, and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from. The training is crucial because you need to know what to expect when you are working with inmates and you need to be prepared in case of an emergency.
You will also find yourself filling out a lot of paperwork because all volunteers are thoroughly screened before they are allowed behind prison walls.
Like I mentioned earlier, workers and volunteers in prison can make an impact in ways that they never thought possible. Most people who are locked up know that they have made poor choices, but once they are in prison, it feels like everyone forgets about them.
When volunteers come into the prison, it gives inmates hope and they appreciate the help in getting their lives back on track. You can make such a difference in an inmate’s life and help them realize that they aren’t a failure.
Prisoners know that they have done something wrong, but when volunteers come in to help them cope with their life, make better decisions, control their impulses and anger, and develop life skills, it makes a huge difference.
Inmates are not bad people. They often have mental health issues and troubled childhoods, and the key to their rehabilitation is education and role models, not punishment.
Many people who volunteer in a prison will tell you that it benefited them just as much—if not more—than it helped the inmates. You realize that inmates are not what you see on TV or in movies—they are human beings who shouldn’t be ignored or forgotten.
The, “out of sight, out of mind,” approach does not work, and it has caused a serious problem in our criminal justice and prison systems in this country. How we handle this issue as a society is extremely important.
Emma Arbogast, a volunteer in an Oregon prison, says, “When children are abused and neglected, we care. We feel bad. We want to help them. We send in social workers. We pass laws to protect them. We create non-profits and task forces. But when these same children grow up and act out of their pain, confusion, and lack of modeling and parenting, we lock them up and forget about them. We shame them and judge them and punish them. We take them away from their kids, their families, and anything that would help them keep their dignity or humanity.”
When you show up to volunteer in a prison, you are telling the inmates that someone outside of the prison walls cares about them. When you model positive behaviors and relationships, it can have a major impact on your community.
Showing an inmate what it means to be a responsible and an accountable citizen, and giving your time to help, is one of the best things you can do.
Most prisons have a volunteer coordinator that you can contact to find out about the volunteer process and opportunities available. They will have documents for you to fill out, including a volunteer application.
The application will ask you things like: what areas you are interested in, if you have a criminal history, or if you know someone who is currently incarcerated.
The best thing to do is contact the facility where you would like to be a volunteer, and they will point you in the right direction to start the process.
Volunteers make a huge difference in prison, and it helps inmates to know that they aren’t forgotten. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to the inmates to have people come in from the outside who are willing to help.
Have you ever volunteered in a prison? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: You Can Make A Difference https://www.bop.gov/jobs/volunteer.jsp What I Learned Volunteering In Prison for Six Months https://medium.com/@cheekyboots/what-i-learned-volunteering-in-prison-for-6-months-e748e0c82589
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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