More than 1.6 million adults were serving time in correctional facilities throughout the United States, at the end of 2008. Many of them were parents with young children, breadwinners, individuals with mental and emotional issues, individuals in need of ongoing medical attention, and inmates headed toward the death penalty. Thousands of volunteers visit federal and state prisons to assist the prison system, help mediate relationships between inmates and their families, and tend to prisoners’ morale. Their helping hand and listening ear helps prisoners cope with the stresses of incarceration through religious, social and recreational activities. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), “The spirit of volunteerism resonates throughout the BOP's daily operations and is reflected in the near-universal agreement that our institutions function better because of volunteers.”
Start with the Federal BOP. It has created the National Office of Citizen Participation to coordinate volunteer activities, and more than 15,000 people have gone through the security and training required to become a badged prison volunteer. Download and read through the Community Volunteer Handbook, and complete the Application for Volunteer Services. Be certain you have the time, sensibilities and commitment to serve prisoner populations. Identify the correctional institution at which you would like to serve. You may find contact information for prisons at the BOP’s website. Next, determine in what capacity you wish to serve. Call the selected prison’s volunteer coordinator to discuss your options. Consider offering tutoring, counseling, worship assistance or social support. Submit your application. It will require that you get a letter of recommendation from your church or other civic organization, to attest to your suitability for this kind of service. You will then undergo a background check, and you must receive a favorable response before being allowed to volunteer. Next, you must complete training provided by the BOP.
Realize that your services may extend beyond the prison walls. Not all people who in the custody of the country’s penal system are housed in a prison. More than 5 million people are living in transitional homes, which also depend heavily on volunteers. Serve at these facilities to help inmates build skills to prepare them to assimilate back into society. For example, you can serve them meals, do their hair and give them business clothes; teach them job hunting, resume, and interviewing skills; and introduce them to important contacts in the community who can help them as they work toward rehabilitation. Find a local transitional home on the BOP’s website, and contact the home directly for the procedure to volunteer there.
Contact one of the many organizations that have long-standing prison volunteering programs. If you are a student in criminal justice or law enforcement, this may include your school. Visit the websites of prison partners, like Alcoholics Anonymous, the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association, the Islamic Society of North America, the American Cancer Association, Prison Fellowship, the Aleph Institute and the National Marriage Encounter Prison Ministry Inc. Many of these organizations recruit volunteers on behalf of federal and state prisons, and they also provide training for volunteers.
Consider volunteering to provide support to the most isolated prisoners. These prisoners receive the least amount of social interaction, often due to the severity of their crimes, but would benefit tremendously from the counsel of a caring visitor.
You can be terminated from volunteer service if you fail to abide by the BOP's rules, such as those regarding confidentiality, and for actions that may be deemed disruptive to the prison's conduct of business.
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