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Prison Volunteer

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Each year, thousands of people are sent to prison for breaking the law. For some, the crime they have committed may be as simple as robbery. For others, it may be as serious as murder. Regardless of their offense, criminals are people, too. And they need human contact.

To help them get the contact they need, prison volunteers give a few hours of their time each month to simply visit with prison inmates. A prison volunteer might volunteer for one or two hours a week, one or more weeks per month. The volunteer will spend time talking to, listening to or playing games with an inmate.

The most common way to find prison visitation programs is through a church or religious organization. These organizations carry their religion to the inmates to help them find faith in what they often look upon as a world without hope or faith.

There are secular, or non-religious, organizations that also have volunteer programs for people who would like to visit prisoners. These are usually private organizations or state-sponsored human services programs.

The most important duty that a prison volunteer has is to be objective and open-minded when visiting with inmates. The volunteer is there to provide the inmate with support and a link to the world outside of the prison.

There are benefits for the prisoners, too. In many cases, the volunteer's visit is the only contact the inmate will have with the world outside the prison walls. And the volunteer may also be the only friend that the inmate has.

Thousands of people are put into prisons each year. Many of those people will spend the rest of their lives in prison. Others will be out within a few years. Volunteers are the lifelines that all of those inmates have to the outside world.

Carolyn Hickey became a prison volunteer when she decided that she wanted to know how the prison system worked. "I wasn't sure I agreed with the prison systems," she says. "So when a prison program was being set up here I volunteered for it." That was six years ago and Hickey is still a prison volunteer.

"Lots of nice things happen," she says about her experiences as a volunteer. "I've had a couple of calls from people who I spent time with in prison once they get out. One young man called me to thank me. He said he found it easier to talk to me than to his counselor and that I helped him a lot."

Lennie Spitale is a prison volunteer and a volunteer coordinator. "A common joke here is that you'll volunteer for a few months or you'll volunteer forever. You either love it or you don't. And it shows."

Spitale loves volunteering so much that he doesn't want to get away from it even though he is also a coordinator. But he admits there is one thing that he doesn't enjoy about volunteering. "Sometimes the correctional officers make it a difficult job. The staff security views you as someone who gives them more work and someone who needs watched over, and so sometimes they'll give you a lot of grief."

The process can be difficult for volunteers if they aren't helped along the way, says Bill McMunn, program administrator for the Match Two Prison Outreach program. "If you send someone to a prison on their own and they fumble around trying to get through the admittance process, they probably won't get in."

Instead, McMunn's program guides their volunteers through the initial process. "We tell our volunteers not to judge everything on the first visit," he says.

"For some inmates, this is the first visitation they have had for years, and when they are brought into the visitation room for the first time, they will be preoccupied with the sights and the people." But it doesn't take long for them to warm up.

"Over time a trust will develop," McMunn says. "Inmates realize that the volunteer comes to visit because they want to, and then they open up and tell them things that they don't even share with their closest cellmates."

How to Get Involved

Becoming a prison volunteer is easy to do, as long as you're over 18 years of age. Most volunteer programs don't allow anyone under the age of 18 because, says Hickey, "Younger people are usually less settled and can't come to visit as often as older adults. Stability is important in a prison volunteer program."

However, Hickey points out that some programs will make exceptions if the younger person is very mature, or if there is a large group that is interested in volunteering.

For those who are interested in volunteering, getting involved is as easy as contacting a prison ministry organization, contacting your chaplain or contacting the human services director of a nearby prison.

Spitale suggests that you first go to an established organization and express interest in volunteering. "They usually have established relationships in the system and can get you involved quickly. If that doesn't work, then go to the chaplain or human services director."

Training to become a prison volunteer is usually provided by the sponsoring agency at no charge. Most of the training concerns how to behave inside the prison. For example, volunteers should not ask an inmate what crime they committed. This is considered judgmental.

There are no special physical requirements for prison volunteers. It is an activity that anyone with the right mindset can take place in. "It helps to be a good listener," says Hickey.

If you are interested in becoming a prison volunteer, here are some organizations that can get you started:


Volunteers in Prevention, Probation and Prisons, Inc.

Prison Fellowship Ministries


Prison Volunteers
Find out how it helps

Federal Bureau of Prisons
Review the various programs and services where volunteers can help make a difference

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