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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Volunteers in prison

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Reports from Clinks and User Voice on the wide range of work done by volunteers in our prisons and the benefits for volunteers and prisoners.

Valuing volunteers

Clinks have just launched two reports on valuing volunteers in prison: the first is a review of volunteer involvement inside, and the second the views of service users and ex-offenders on volunteers in prison.

Volunteering inside

Volunteering in prisons has a tradition that extends for over a century. In that time volunteering has taken many different forms and contributed in a number of ways to the rehabilitation of people both in prison and on their release into the community.

Organisations and the people who volunteer their time to work in prisons are diverse. Some organisations involve a small number of volunteers to provide ad hoc support for members of staff. Others provide large-scale programmes commissioned regionally or nationally.

Not all volunteering is managed by voluntary sector organisations. Some prisons recruit volunteers themselves, often through the chaplaincy department. A major source of volunteer involvement in prisons is the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs), whose volunteer members ensure that proper standards of care and decency are maintained in prison establishments.

Many governors have sought to increase the number of volunteers in their prison, partly to cope with their ever-diminishing budgets. Lynn Saunders, Governor of HMP Whatton, who spoke at the launch event for these reports described an extremely impressive range of services run by volunteers which would not be possible now that her annual budget had fallen from a peak of £22 million to £14 million.

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The report

Clinks conducted 72 interviews with staff in prisons across England and Wales, surveyed over 800 volunteers and volunteer managers across 121 prisons, and wrote up 14 in-depth case studies of local approaches. User Voice held five focus groups (2 in prisons, 2 with CRCs and 1 with ex-service users) engaging with 39 current and ex-services. There were six key findings from the report:

Prison volunteering has clear benefits for stakeholders

Prisons and voluntary sector organisations identified that volunteering engages service users and that the involvement of unpaid volunteers made services more credible. Well-managed volunteers were thought to add capacity, flexibility and a personalised offer to service users that could aid innovation and support a positive culture in prisons. Volunteers themselves found their work in prisons to be extremely rewarding and interesting.

There are different models of volunteering

Some prisons featured a wide range of roles with a clear volunteering strategy and policies to support it, whilst others supported volunteering through the enthusiasm of individual staff members. Most of the 12 prisons visited for the report did not have a whole-organisation approach to volunteer involvement.

Factors supporting successful volunteering

A number of common factors were identified that support successful volunteering:

  • Clear strategic oversight and support at governor/director level for volunteering;
  • Being flexible on what and when volunteering is allowed in the prison;
  • Robust procedures for recruitment, selection and training build trust and confidence in volunteers;
  • Support for volunteers with security vetting helps them to take up their roles quickly;
  • Good management and supervision supports volunteers to undertake their roles;
  • Giving trusted volunteers appropriate responsibilities can ease pressure on staff; and
  • Promoting the positive role of volunteers helps to integrate them into the prison.

Barriers to successful volunteering

Conversely, a number of common factors were identified that act as barriers to successful volunteering:

  • Volunteering can involve a large time commitment often during office hours, making it difficult for some people to get involved;
  • Delays to volunteer recruitment, often associated with security vetting and volunteer training, can cause volunteers to lose interest;
  • Lack of support from prison staff can hinder volunteers’ effective and safe involvement in the prison regime;
  • Security vetting is sometimes poorly understood by volunteers who have a criminal record, which may act as a barrier to their involvement.

What volunteers do

Volunteers undertake a wide range of roles in prisons, from the comparatively simple (staffing a tea bar in a prison visitor centre), to roles that are far more complex (acting as independent monitors of prison conditions). In some cases, volunteers directly support paid staff, and in other cases they work relatively independently. Volunteers offer a large amount of their time, with most volunteering at least once a fortnight and for at least two hours on each occasion.

Who are prison volunteers?

Prison volunteers responding to the Clinks survey were predominantly white, aged 55 or over and were retired or not currently in paid work. This does not represent the profile of the prison population, and shows a lack of diversity amongst those who volunteer. Some organisations have recruited a more diverse volunteer base, the result of proactive steps to do outreach work in local communities, or have designed roles that are more flexible for volunteers who have other commitments.

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The views of service users

A large majority of service users said they considered volunteers to be independent, trustworthy and motivated by a genuine desire to help others. However, experiences varied considerably with service user interviewees at one prison saying they weren’t aware of any volunteers working in the prison.

For many service users, the motivation to engage in positive activity was the most constructive aspect of their involvement with volunteers. The independence of volunteers, freely and actively trying to help service users, was mentioned frequently as a powerful tool to inspire motivation; as these two quotes from the report illustrate:

They’re coming in because of you; it gives you a sense of value so you value yourself. They give up their time to come and see you. You admire what they do, and you in turn want to do something. So it’s like everybody is working off each other.

 

I think volunteers are organisations that are not authoritative, they’re more approachable, they are more on your wave length, they are more understanding and listening. For me, I was able to approach them more, they were more caring for me and not in an authoritative position.

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Conclusions

Staff and volunteers from User Voice shared their own experiences at the launch of the reports and I’d like to leave the last words to one of these speakers:

You get no communication from the justice system once you’ve been sentenced, you’re forgotten about. Volunteers who come into prison are the bridge between prison and the outside world.

 

[You can also download 14 different case studies of volunteering in prison from Clinks.]

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