Prisoners as Volunteers

Learning and Practicing Citizenship and Democracy Behind Bars

Michelle Inderbitzin, Joshua Cain, and Trevor Walraven Introduction

Even as the USA locks away and punishes its people in unprecedented numbers, the impact of mass incarceration extends beyond those sitting in prisons and jails to their families and communities who feel their loss and are deeply affected by it. As Gottschalk (2014) explains:

Today the United States is the world’s warden, incarcerating a higher proportion of its people than any other country. The United States has built a carceral state that is unprecedented among industrialized countries and in U.S. history. The emergence and consolidation of the U.S. carceral state is

a major milestone in American political development____ Its reach is truly

breathtaking. It extends well beyond the nearly 2.3 million people sitting in jail or prison today in the United States. It encompasses more than 7 million people—or 1 in 31 adults—who are under some form of state control, including jail, prison, probation, parole, or community sanctions. (p. 289)

M. Inderbitzin (H)

Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA J. Cain • T. Walraven

Oregon State Penitentiary, Salem, OR, USA © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016

L.S. Abrams et al. (eds.), The Voluntary Sector in Prisons, Palgrave

Studies in Prisons and Penology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-54215-1_3

Our democracy is necessarily weakened by the loss and possible estrangement of millions of citizens through their involvement in the criminal justice system. Harcourt (2014) writes about the “invisibility of the prison in democratic theory” (p. 6), noting that “one can only wonder about the much broader impact of such a massive prison system on the democratic citizenship of large segments of our communities” (p. 9).

Many prisoners were convicted of crimes and incarcerated at a very young age; as such, they may not have had the opportunity to develop a clear understanding of what it means to live and participate in a democratic society before they were forcibly removed from it. As adults, much of what these young men and women know about democracy and citizenship has been learned within the prison environment (Inderbitzin, Walraven, & Cain, 2013). This chapter is coauthored by two juvenile lifers and focuses on their experience as elected leaders in the Lifers’ Unlimited Club at the all-male, maximum-security Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). The prisoners who volunteer their time and energy as elected leaders are charged with representing the voices and the interests of the club members with prison administrators and other prisoner- led clubs; these leaders work closely with staff advisors to organize events and panels, partner with outside community agencies and stakeholders as they have the opportunity to do so, raise and distribute funds, and put forth proposals for new programs.

Participation in such prisoner-led clubs reinforces principles of democracy by showing incarcerated individuals that their votes and voices can be made to count and that they can make a difference in their own daily lives and the lives of others. Leaders in these prisoner-run clubs are often the “good citizens” of the prison, recognized as such by both their fellow prisoners and the prison staff, and they consistently make efforts to give back to the larger community by participating in fundraisers and contributing to organizations that work with children and at-risk youth on the outside. These young men deal with the deprivation of liberty through positive means, “rejecting the rejectors” (Sykes, 1958) by becoming stronger and better citizens in prison, partnering with and embracing the outside community with their charitable deeds.

Justice and Meares (2014) suggest that public schooling and the criminal justice system are two central pathways by which the state interacts with its citizens, providing formal and informal education to the individuals passing through their ranks. They further argue: “for an increasing number of Americans, the criminal justice system plays a powerful and pervasive role in providing a civic education, in anticitizenry, that is the reverse of the education that public schools are supposed to offer” (p. 159).

Similarly, Weaver, Hacker, and Wildeman (2014) argue that imprisonment can be a debilitating experience for individuals, noting the many areas of their lives that can be affected after release. They write:

Criminal justice interventions make people less prepared and capable of being engaged citizens, regardless of their desire to do so, by making them more troubled in a host of social domains: their ability to maintain jobs, housing, and stable families; their access to the social safety net; and their risk of poverty, joblessness, homelessness, and other disadvantages that make civic engagement more difficult. (p. 12)

While we appreciate the additional challenges a felony record or prison sentence can have on an individual’s efforts at civic engagement, we also understand that many men and women in prison work hard to develop relationships with their families or other community stakeholders through visits, educational opportunities, classes, and clubs within correctional facilities.

Incarcerated men and women are capable of developing their marketable skills by working in various jobs within the prison environment and accessing educational literature and texts. As an example, men in OSP, where two of the authors of this article currently reside, can develop contacts with community and find parole-friendly housing opportunities through transitional services classes and through agencies and volunteers who work within the prison. They are able to work on their ability to maintain a stable family through classes like Parenting Inside-Out, Responsible Fatherhood, and Keys to Loving Relationships.[1] Within this particular prison, special interest groups like Family First—a program created and maintained by both prison staff and incarcerated men—help the men inside develop skills in parenting and caregiver support, while also providing opportunities to share and exercise those skills during special visiting opportunities.

An informal social safety net also commonly develops among releasing prisoners who share positive attitudes and goals. Released prisoners often go out of their way to help each other: to attain employment, to find housing, to navigate family assistance, to secure aid in emergencies, to understand the use of social media to respond to roadside emergencies, and to generally find mentorship, sponsorship, and other daily necessities. As Weaver et al. (2014) suggest, released prisoners face a greater likelihood of poverty, stigma, and homelessness, but a sense of community is often developed between those who share the prison experience with all the accompanying stress and challenges of living under the state’s control.

In his classic book, Society ofCaptives, Gresham Sykes (1958) described several pains of imprisonment, one of which is the deprivation of liberty:

For the great majority of criminals in prison, however, the evidence suggests that neither alienation from the ranks of the law-abiding nor involvement in a system of criminal value is sufficient to eliminate the threat to the prisoner’s ego posed by society’s rejection____The prisoner is never allowed to

forget that, by committing a crime, he has foregone his claim to the status of a full-fledged, trusted member of society. The status lost by the prisoner is, in fact, similar to what Marshall has called the status of citizenship—the basic acceptance of the individual as a functioning member of the society in which he lives. It is true that in the past the imprisoned criminal literally suffered civil death and that although the doctrines of attainder and corruption of blood were largely abandoned in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the inmate is still stripped of many of his civil rights such as the right to vote, to hold office, to sue in court, and so on. But as important as the loss of these civil rights may be, the loss of that more diffuse status which defines the individual as someone to be trusted or as morally acceptable is the loss that hurts most.

In short, the wall which seals off the criminal, the contaminated man, is a constant threat to the prisoner’s self-conception and the threat is continually repeated in the many daily reminders that he must be kept apart from “decent” men. Somehow this rejection or degradation by the free community must be warded off, turned aside, rendered harmless. Somehow the imprisoned criminal must find a device for rejecting his rejectors, if he is to endure psychologically. (pp. 66-67)

In this chapter, we argue that one way current prisoners can and do “reject their rejectors” and prove their value to the community is by embracing the ideals of democracy and citizenship, becoming leaders of the prison population and exemplars for those in the outside society.

Sibley (1995) claims that, “We cannot understand the role of space in the reproduction of social relations without recognizing that the relatively powerless still have enough power to ‘carve out spaces of control’ in respect to their day-to-day lives” (p. 76). We now move to explore the many ways that prisoners serving time in correctional facilities can act as volunteers, working separately when it is necessary and alongside outside volunteers when it is possible to affect positive change. We offer an inside look at current prisoners’ efforts to carve out their own spaces of control and to make meaning of their lives during the long and difficult years of their incarceration. Their positive attitudes and good works in extremely constricting circumstances can create an empowering ripple effect on their families, the prison staff members, and the larger community.

  • [1] The programs available in the Oregon State Penitentiary are a combination of regionalprograms run by nonprofit organizations contracted by the Department of Corrections todevelop and deliver the curriculum (Parenting Inside-Out is one example), national programs with curriculum available for purchase with classes led by staff or volunteers from theprison and larger community, and programs developed and implemented within the prisonby prisoners, volunteers, and staff members.
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