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Volunteers in Prisons

CONTENTS

Why Should One Become Involved in Correctional Volunteer Services?
Volunteer Opportunities in the Division of Prisons
Who May Volunteer?
Requirements for Volunteers
Guidelines for Volunteers
How Does a Volunteer Actually Help an Inmate?
Basic Communication Skills
Advising the Inmate

If you are interested in serving as a volunteer, please contact your local prison or call the Office of Citizen Participation at (919) 838-3613.


Why Should One Become Involved in Correctional Volunteer Services?

There are several reasons why civic-minded citizens may wish to offer their services as volunteers in a correctional facility:

Economics - Through active citizen participation, inmates may be reintegrated into the community to become law-abiding members of society. It costs more to keep a person in prison than to place them on probation or for the court to order restitution or community service, or place them under electronic surveillance.

Public Safety - The return of the inmate to the community as a safe and law-abiding citizen can be fostered and promoted by individual citizens through the Community Volunteer Program. Feelings of bitterness may be reduced by offering a hand of friendship, understanding and acceptance.

Personal Satisfaction - A feeling of responsibility toward one's community could lead concerned citizens to promote and assist in the rehabilitation of the inmate.

Personal Growth - Volunteers give more than just time--volunteers give of themselves to help guide the inmate toward stronger family ties and toward a clearer understanding of the responsibilities of a law-abiding citizen.

A chance to expand interpersonal relationships - The volunteer has the opportunity to meet and work with the Division of Prisons staff and inmates. Volunteers have the opportunity to learn about prison operations; help to ease workloads of staff members and at the same time, offer a hand of friendship to the inmate.

Training and Experience - Documented volunteer service can be used as partial fulfillment of training and experience requirements for state employment. Staff members may be requested to provide a letter to detail a volunteer's service at their facility.

Public Awareness - A Volunteer can serve as a liaison between the correctional facility and the community by opening channels of communication, and creating positive interaction between them.

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Volunteer Opportunities in the Division of Prisons

Volunteers, can and do, provide a variety of services within the Division of Prisons. These include but are not limited to the following:

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Who May Volunteer?

A person, who is at least 21 years of age who has encountered some of life's problems and has been able to solve them, may provide support and encouragement for an inmate. Volunteers should view themselves honestly. Regardless of age, they should be able to live with frustrations, to cope with life's problems realistically and to have the energy to devote to listening to others.

The amount of education a volunteer has is not a measure for success. Good volunteers are not measured by their formal education. Stability, willingness and ability to be of help are of greater importance. Volunteers dealing with inmates should be representative of all social, economic, and educational levels to totally meet the needs of the large inmate population.

The ex-offender who has successfully adjusted to living a crime-free life may well have a vast source of personal experience and strength which will help an inmate. Ex-offenders may be considered volunteers subject to Policy and Procedures governing Community Volunteer Program.

Women are playing a significant role in corrections. They are working in almost every type of volunteer service. However, women may not serve as Community Leave Sponsors for male inmates, nor may men be Community Leave Sponsors for female inmates in the DOP.

There are many enthusiastic retired people whose experience, expertise and accomplishments make them ideally suited for work in corrections and a valuable asset to the DOP's Community Volunteer Program.

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Requirements for Volunteers

All volunteers offering their services to the DOP must submit a Volunteer Application which includes personal references if they plan to perform a continual volunteer activity. There are several reasons for this application process including:

The qualifications of the volunteer must be matched to the needs expressed in the volunteer job description.

The goals volunteers have for performing their services must be compatible with the goals of the Department.

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Guidelines for Volunteers

Get acquainted with the personnel with whom you will be working and familiarize yourself with the facility.

Formulate some personal goals you wish to reach. Keep in mind the time frame within which you must work. Be careful not to plan a job so big for yourself that your goals become unreachable. This creates frustration. Short range goals are much easier to keep in sight. Keep track of progress toward your goals. This is the key to reaching them.

As a volunteer, you are assuming certain responsibilities that demand loyalty both to the DOP and the inmate. You must be willing to be trained and supervised by staff. Do not criticize what you do not understand, but ask for an explanation.

Your dependability as a volunteer is essential if you are to be of real service to the Division. You need to be time-responsible, arriving and leaving on time unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. If you cannot be at the assigned location at the appointed time, please notify the staff. Meet the commitment you make to the Division and to an inmate.

It is important to be truly interested in your volunteer work and the people with whom you are working. Without job satisfaction a volunteer will not be capable of performing satisfactorily. Job satisfaction should be as important to you as it is to staff.

You will be supervised by a staff member. If you have any questions about what constitutes contraband or what should be considered confidential, ask a staff person.

If you are not performing a service that you feel is needed, contact the Volunteer Coordinator for a new assignment. Your time and talent(s) are too valuable to be wasted.

You are an important source of community support. Many people have misconceptions as to the DOP and inmate needs. You are an important citizen advocate in the community. You will be more effective as a "listener and learner" than a critic of the correctional system.

Be well-focused upon your particular duties and concentrate on how you can best fulfill them. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Be aware of your surroundings. You may be able to offer new perspectives and fresh new ideas.

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How Does a Volunteer Actually Help an Inmate?

Each inmate is a unique individual. Although there is no definite pattern for helping, the following suggestions may be beneficial:

Be Responsible - Follow a schedule and keep appointments and promises to avoid adding to the inmates' confusion and giving them another feeling of rejection. To help, you must be dependable for it is your duty to set an example which promotes responsibility in the inmate.

Respect the Inmate - Unless you respect the inmates, they will not open up to you and may resist your desire to help. Volunteers must consider the inmates' individuality, basic rights as a human being, and show them the dignity that all people deserve.

Listen and Understand the Problem - Until you have figured out the pressures on the inmates, their needs, interests, capabilities and limitations from their point of view, you will be unable to help.

Guard Against Over-Identification - As a volunteer, it is your job to find a common basis where you can relate in a friendly way. The inmate's problems may be unique; you cannot carry the burden of them yourself. You do not have to join the inmates on their level in order to relate. To feel with the inmate give them strength. To feel like them makes them feel that you are in the same position as they are.

Ask for Help - If you are uncertain about what to do or say, it is always best to tell the inmate that you will have to seek other advice. They do not expect you to have all the answers. Discuss the problem with the Volunteer Coordinator or another experienced one-to-one volunteer.

A volunteer in a correctional facility does not have an easy task. Many inmates, for various reasons, have built invisible walls around themselves that are higher than any prison walls.

Take it Easy - Relationships are not built overnight. The inmate will probably be more uneasy about you than you are about him or her. Don't try to map out the whole volunteer process at the first meeting. You may be the first person who has ever offered friendship to the inmate. Therefore, the inmate may be afraid to accept your friendship for fear of disappointment or they may be more concerned about what your "angle" is.

Ask inmates questions about things they know about...What is prison like?...How do they occupy their time?...Be careful not to probe, because they may not be ready to tell you about their crime or other guilt associated matters, they will tell you in their own time. Ideally, let them talk, but if they want to learn about you first, answer their questions honestly and sincerely.

Accept the Inmate - Even though your values may be different from those of the inmate, you should accept them as individuals without condemning or condoning their behavior. To accept an inmate is to have a genuine interest. Your goal is to help the inmates to help themselves. If you take seriously the belief in self-determination, you will help the inmates arrive at their own decisions rather than attempting to mold them as you see fit. But you should make a clear distinction between evaluation and judgment. Assume a nonjudgmental attitude between you and your inmate friend so that you will be able to give them the acceptance they need and want.

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Basic Communication Skills

Listening and Hearing - Allow the person to talk. It is important to the inmate to be listened to and be heard. They may have never had anyone who would hear them out. Their values may shock you but listen without judging or condoning.

Empathizing - It is important that the volunteer be able to empathize with the inmate. But empathy should not extend to the point of sympathy.

Let the Inmate Get to Know You - You should serve as a good role model, setting an example in terms of behavior. Be supportive, encouraging, friendly but also firm. Whatever the role or obligations of the volunteer, respect and friendship will be far more beneficial if the inmate knows that you will be firm, honest and objective in disapproving certain behavior where warranted.

Showing Respect - You should not overlook the fact that for inmates, respect is something they have perhaps never experienced and with which they are not familiar. It is important that you respect inmates and they learn to respect you.

Then, after this relationship has developed, you may have an influence on their lives. You must deal with present and future rather than past.

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Advising the Inmate

For advice to be most helpful and meaningful, certain guidelines should be followed:

Did they ask for it? Can they take action without it? Can they use the advice you are giving? Can you accept responsibility for the advice you give?

Building Self-esteem - One can easily trap oneself into thinking that "because inmates are failures, they will continue to be failures." If you show this in your attitude, the inmates may pick up this feeling and act out these expectations. The reverse is true. If you show inmates they can be a success, they are likely to pick up some of the positive feelings.

Using Appropriate Language - You should avoid adopting the inmate's vocabulary. To use language that is not natural for you may make you seem phony. At the same time, you should not leave the impression of being naive. Use language understandable to inmates. Do not use words that are beyond their comprehension. BE YOURSELF.

Timing - Although it may seem tempting to offer an immediate solution to problems and/or questions of inmates, they may not understand the solution. In accepting a solution foreign to them, they may never really identify with it.

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