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Introduction: The Significance of Voluntary Sector Provision in Correctional Settings

Laura S. Abrams, Emma Hughes, Rosie Meek, and Michelle Inderbitzin

The voluntary sector has had a long-standing relationship with prisons and prisoners in the USA and the UK and in many countries across the globe. Beginning with prison chaplains and later expanding to education, work training, and a range of rehabilitative services, the voluntary sector has played a significant role in providing programs for incarcerated people as well as in shaping the culture of penal institutions themselves. Yet never before has the study of the relationships between these sectors been more important or politically relevant.

L. S. Abrams (H)

University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA E. Hughes

California State University, Fresno, CA, USA R. Meek

Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, UK

M. Inderbitzin

Oregon State University, Corvallis, 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_1

More than 10.2 million people are incarcerated worldwide, one-fifth of whom hail from the USA. Put in perspective, the rate of incarceration in the USA is 712 per 100,000, while in England and Wales it is 148 per 100,000 persons, just slightly higher than the average of 144 per 100,000 persons worldwide (Walmsley, 2013). Although the USA is a clear outlier in criminal justice policies and incarceration rates, the overall global prison population has increased by over 25 % over the past 15 years. More and more individuals are affected by the institution of the prison; not only as inmates and their family members, but also as correctional and law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, educators, activists, and volunteers. The ripple effect of these unprecedented increases in the number of people either confined or under correctional supervision is virtually impossible to calculate in monetary or emotional value.

Based on its outlier status, the USA is currently facing the far-reaching consequences of “mass incarceration.” This collection of harsh sentencing policies, stemming in part from the movement known as the “War on Drugs” of the 1970s and 1980s, has destroyed families and communities, exhausted public budgets, and created a new group of (primarily) men of color who are marginalized from voting rights, employment, and mainstream civic life based on their criminal records (Alexander, 2010; Manza & Uggen, 2006; Western, 2006). No longer able to sustain itself, the mass incarceration bubble is bursting (United States Department of Justice, 2013). While the countries that comprise the UK are not experiencing a crisis of this magnitude, still the rate of imprisonment has skyrocketed over the past 20 years. The British government is currently constructing new prisons, and prison reform organizations and activists are increasingly concerned that what has happened in the USA could happen in Europe as well.

Currently in 2015, there is increasing public and bipartisan governmental recognition in the USA that War on Drugs policies have largely failed to halt crime or create a climate of public safety (Raphael & Stoll, 2009). As such, we are witnessing a significant shift toward beliefs long held in other nations—particularly in Western European and Scandinavian countries—that incarcerated people need education, skills, and other forms of rehabilitation in order to succeed upon their release and that humane treatment of prisoners may contribute to a more peaceful society as whole. As such, public discourses have turned increasingly to softer terms, such as prisoner rehabilitation, education, job training, reentry, and resettlement. These discourses represent a significant shift for the USA in particular, where over the past several decades correctional facilities have become increasingly punitive and less rehabilitative at their core.

With the call for more supportive services in prisons and jails, one must recognize that a large portion of the rehabilitative umbrella in penal settings is currently provided by the voluntary sector, meaning individuals and groups who do not work directly for correctional agencies but who provide therapeutic, educational, skills training, spiritual, and an array of other supportive programs within prison and jail facilities. This sector encompasses unpaid volunteer work along with third sector nonprofit organizations that may or may not be contractually related to law enforcement or criminal justice agencies. While the voluntary (or “third”) sector is largely responsible for a diverse range of service provision, there is limited scholarly conversation about the nature or limits of the voluntary sector as it operates in penal settings. Many questions remain unanswered about these exchanges, such as the extent to which the voluntary sector is truly able to change the institutions or the people whom they work with for the better. We also know little about volunteers themselves, who they are, and what their experiences are as they navigate their role in correctional settings. Moreover, there is limited critical conversation about volunteerism within prisons and jails or the role of volunteerism within the larger prison regime.

This edited collection seeks to address these knowledge gaps by providing a multifaceted exploration of the programming that the voluntary sector provides in encouraging institutional change in prisons as well as providing individual services and support to those who are housed behind bars. Rather than explore the voluntary sector’s involvement with the criminal justice system more broadly (c.f. Hucklesby & Corocan, 2015), we have focused upon the sector’s engagement with men and women behind bars through services provided within jails and prisons and upon reentry to society. This volume spans the USA, the UK, and Canada, juvenile and adult facilities, and prisons and jails. In doing so, it collectively demonstrates the exciting, groundbreaking, and yet often unrecognized work that the voluntary sector is implementing in correctional facilities. Even as we highlight promising practices, we also pose critical questions about the use of and in some cases, dependence on programs provided by the voluntary sector. For example, rather than relying on the energy of volunteers, nonprofit agencies, or prisoners themselves, should some of these important programs be funded by and built into the institutions themselves? On the flip side, what are the consequences of the voluntary sector becoming “too close” to the correctional sector? What does this clash and cooperation of sectors mean in an era of neoliberalism and more localized (i.e., state and county) control over services for offenders and ex-offenders?

We believe that the multiauthored nature of this collection, including two chapters coauthored with currently incarcerated men, is one of its unique strengths. There is a great diversity of programs created by the voluntary sector offered in correctional facilities in the USA, the UK, and beyond, and the chapters in this book offer insight into the current variety as well as the multiple possibilities that may exist for the future. In addition, the chapters contain rich diversity in regard to views, theories, and perspectives. The cross-national contributions include the perspectives of academics, some of whom are also volunteers (see Part IV of this volume). In Part II, we also uniquely highlight the essential but often unheard perspectives of incarcerated individuals as volunteers, some of whom are leading innovative programs within institutions themselves. Given that this volume considers the possibilities for personal change and institutional transformation through voluntary sector provision, there is particular significance when the programs are self-directed by those who are actually incarcerated. To our knowledge, this is one of few scholarly collections to consider the perspectives of prisoners themselves as volunteers, organizers, and leaders.

This volume also attempts to signal the positive efforts made to enhance the opportunities for incarcerated men and women to engage in constructive and rehabilitative activities while incarcerated and upon their reentry to society. All too often these stories of small gains are overlooked, contributing to correctional systems and volunteer programs operating in silos and reinventing the wheel when seeking to try new methods of programming or intervention. This book seeks to breakdown these boundaries, encouraging dialogue and discussion about the innovative work being carried out by volunteers in correctional facilities, programs that can help to offset the negative aspects of institutionalization that can hinder personal growth.

That said, the authors recognize the potential challenges and obstacles that can develop when nonstate actors provide programs within correctional facilities. The interface between the nonprofit and criminal justice sectors will be considered with this caution in mind and analyzed most specifically in Part III of this volume. As the hybridization of voluntary and penal sector services increases, the potential for correctional discourses of punishment and social control to influence voluntary service provision poses a potentially problematic set of consequences for workers, clients, and receiving communities. Still, the overall collection of essays will demonstrate the vulnerability of such programming if not properly acknowledged and supported by correctional staff, correctional officials, and policymakers. The potential consequences of a loss of such programming for the offenders themselves, and for society as a whole, are crucial. While rehabilitative endeavors are increasingly seen as necessary by governments, correctional systems, and the general public in the USA and the UK, vital questions must be asked about how such endeavors are best provided, supported, and sustained. This volume thus provides an important and timely contribution to a rigorous examination of these pressing social concerns.

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