Supporting the Supporters: The Voices of Volunteers

“Volunteers Welcome, That Is, Some Volunteers”: Experiences Teaching College Courses at a Women’s Prison

Kristenne M. Robison

Prison volunteers provide unpaid labor and social capital to prisons. The collective contributions of volunteers are a seemingly valuable asset at a time in the USA when declining budgets create the need to do more with less in prisons. Volunteers with specialized skills, such as educational training, should be very appealing to prison administration as prison education budgets have been dramatically cut over the last 5 years (Clarke, 2014). The Rand Corporation found that states reduced their prison education budgets by an average of 6 % between the fiscal years of 2009-2012. The states with the largest prison populations slashed their education budgets by 10 %, and those with mid-sized prison populations slashed their education budgets by 20 % (Davis, Bozick, Steele, Saunders, & Miles, 2014). Cutting prison educational budgets might have the unintended consequences of increasing recidivism rates, as Davis et al.’s meta-analysis (2014) found that inmates who participated in correctional education programming had a 43 % less chance of recidivating compared to those

K.M. Robison (и) Westminster College, 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_11

who did not participate in prison educational programming. Intentional recruitment and utilization of prison education volunteers not only benefit the inmates and prison budgets, but also the prison administration. Moreover, educational volunteers who can teach higher education courses are valuable to prisons seeking accreditation from the Correctional Education Association (Correctional Education Association, 2004).

So what do we know about prison educational volunteers? The answer is very little. The largest percentages of prison volunteers are typically those who participate in religious programming. Tewksbury and Dabney’s (2004) survey of 72 volunteers at one medium-security prison in the southern USA found that 91.4 % of prison volunteers surveyed were involved in Chapel programming, with the remaining 8 % volunteering in educational and recreational programming. The authors subsequently called for scholars to explore the world of prison volunteers, yet 11 years later we find little has been accomplished. It is important to better understand the motivations and experiences of prison volunteers to reduce attrition and improve the quality and consistency of volunteer programming within prisons.

This study uses an autoethnographic, magnified moment methodology (Hochschild, 1994) to highlight various cultural and structural factors that shaped the experience of one prison educational volunteer offering college courses at a women’s prison. I am a trained sociologist who was entering the prison to teach a sociology course and conduct focus groups with incarcerated women on their educational experiences, but I also was a volunteer who was met with resistance and suspicion. A goal of this chapter is to elevate my personal experiences as a prison educational volunteer into a meaningful analysis, but I also want it to convey the emotional side of the experience, which often included hope, confusion, frustration, and anger. This study is not meant to make sweeping generalizations about educational prison volunteers nor the factors that shape all volunteer experiences, but instead through focusing on these magnified moments take the reader on a journey to consider larger theoretical questions of which volunteers attain access into prison, or on the flipside, which volunteers do not get into prison? What are the implications of who gets in and who doesn’t get in? Who gets in, but walks away? This book highlights some of the innovations in the voluntary sector in prisons, but this chapter pushes us to think about what innovative volunteer programs might never have the chance to flourish, why they might not make it into prison, and why some volunteers might not come back. The experiences and lessons learned add to the paucity of literature on volunteers in prison, particularly on the experiences of volunteers themselves in the intersection of the educational and correctional sectors. This chapter will provide insight to better understand the experiences of educational volunteers and to help bridge the gaps between volunteerism and the vast need for prison education.

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