Prisoners as Volunteers

This set of four chapters describes and comments on the role of prisoners serving as leaders, volunteers, mentors, and teachers within correctional facilities in the USA and the UK. Although prisoners have historically supported one another behind bars in many informal ways, little to no scholarship has examined the meaning and experiences of those who become volunteers and leaders in this capacity. As such, we invite the reader to absorb this collection of four chapters (two from the USA and two from the UK) as some of the first published work of its kind; of particular note, two of the chapters in this section are coauthored by prisoners themselves.

This collection of original empirical papers is united by several key elements. To begin, they showcase the idea that prisoners can and should serve as resources within penal institutions. While the correctional environment might appear to pose barriers to the reality of prisoners serving as volunteers and leaders, these chapters show how these opportunities can actually transform components of the prison culture itself. For example, Chap. 3 by Michelle Inderbitzin along with “lifers” Joshua Cain and Trevor Walraven describes, in Joshua and Trevor’s own words, how prisoner-led clubs provide mechanisms for learning civic participation. As club members, incarcerated individuals are able to congregate, advocate, and promote leadership as a group. The next and complementary chapter by Michelle, Trevor, and fellow prison leader James (Chap. 4) Anderson illustrates how prisoners can work together in organized groups to make the prison a more humane environment and to shatter the barriers between insiders and outsiders. These two chapters are distinct yet united in that they take place in one maximum security facility in the USA that has provided these men, convicted of murder and other violent crimes, a clear opportunity to create meaningful lives while behind bars. In finding this meaning, they also benefit the prison and the outside community as a whole.

This section also uniquely speaks to the ways that prisoners serving as volunteers can dramatically change the lives of the volunteers themselves. Christian Perrin and Nicholas Bladgen’s work (Chap. 5) on four UK peer- support schemes offers poignant examples of how these roles provide the volunteers with motivations as well as the skills to work toward desistance from crime. Taking on a peer-support role appears to offer those who participate new identities they can embrace after their release. The lifers referred to above (Trevor, Josh, and James) and some of the incarcerated men that Perrin and Blagden interviewed may not be able to exercise their leadership and citizenry outside the prison walls any time soon or perhaps not at all. Nevertheless, their roles as leaders of prisoner-led organization and peer-support schemes have provided positive outlets for their energy and enthusiasm to give back through direct support and engagement with fellow prisoners and the community at large. In essence, these roles and opportunities provide meaning, promote desistance, and positively influence the prison culture as a whole.

In addition to illustrating the power that prisoner-led initiatives can have in changing institutions and individuals, these chapters also showcase some of the barriers that arise in trying to launch and sustain these types of programs from the inside. The final chapter in this section (Chap. 6) provides information on considerations that may arise when launching a volunteer program involving prisoners. Anita Mehay and Rosie Meek present the results of an investigation into the development of a volunteer peer health promotion program in a young offender institution (YOI) for young men in the UK. The authors find that while many residents of the facility would welcome the opportunity to participate in such a program, institutional and personal barriers to discussing health matters in this setting are still present. While the young men largely felt that the program would be of benefit to them and the prison, they were still wary of how much the prison staff or institutional culture would support the idea of prisoners as leaders and champions of their own health. Thus while the prior three chapters offer examples of the positive benefits of existing programs, the final chapter in this group provides an alternative viewpoint as well as useful information for those seeking to develop or implement a peer-led support program in a prison or jail.

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