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Home arrow Law arrow The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change

Filling the Gap

Drawing on data from both the British and California-based studies described earlier, this section will explore how charity and volunteer-led programs and activities can enrich a prison or jail environment in ways that can appreciably impact the lives of those who take part. Notably, the enhanced provision can expand participants’ opportunities to prepare for and gain insight into postrelease lives, help reduce the negative impact of institutionalization, and aid the development of affirming and pro-social cultures within a facility.

Preparing for Post-release Lives

Participants described how the supplementary activities made possible by outside support have helped them to better prepare for employment after release, develop and clarify goals for the future, and find alternative ways of living their lives. In some cases these supplementary activities worked alongside state-run programs or complement personal transformations that the individuals are already experiencing. Significantly, participants reported gaining a greater sense of hope for their future as a result of their involvement with non-profit and voluntary sector provision.

A primary motivation for British prisoners to pursue distance learning is to improve their employment prospects post-release (Hughes, 2012). Students have consistently pointed to limited opportunities within prison education departments once basic skills classes have been completed, or if qualifications were held before entering prison, as motivation for seeking charitable funds to further their education through correspondence.

Trevor, who entered prison without educational qualifications, explained: “I’ve finished full-time education [in the department].... I’ve done a few extra courses that they had available ... I’ve completed them all.”[1] He enrolled in a PET-funded introduction to the music industry course that he had heard about from a fellow prisoner. He said: “I wanted to get something that was going to benefit me in what I wanted to do when I get out.At the time, I still wanted to learn more things, so I opted to do that.” Nick faced similar circumstances after completing all prison-based courses within 2 to 3 months of his arrival. With approximately 3 years left of his sentence, he found himself asking: “what’s next?” and turned to distance learning.

The extensive range of available courses through PET can also overcome gendered stereotypes that may impact what prison-based courses are available (Bloom, Owen & Covington, 2003). The following quote is from Eileen, a student in an open prison who was able to leave the facility during the day for education and vocational training. She wrote in a letter to PET:

I would like to thank you and the trustees for funding the forklift truckdriving course for me ... it was very interesting and took a lot of hard work.. Having passed, I hope this leads to further training on different trucks and possibly a job in the future. Thank you once again, if it wasn’t for your funding, I would never have been able to attend the course.

Students who were focused on future job opportunities frequently pointed to the need to advance their education well beyond basic skills, given the challenges they anticipated encountering in obtaining employment on account of their criminal records. Students sought qualifications to show prospective employers that their time in prison was well spent, but also to boost their chances in comparison to other applicants. Joe, then aged 23 and serving a life sentence,[2] undertook distance learning with this in mind:

“Because of the sentence I was doing ... I thought I’ve got to give myself the best possible chance, not just of getting out but that when I do get out I’ll have options open to me.”

Indicative of the potential significance of the PET grants for helping to develop a new future based on enhanced education, Pam, a single mother of three, undertaking a business studies course, wrote on her research questionnaire:

[The] Prisoners’ Education Trust have really given me a big start, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them. They have helped me in making a big change in my life. They have saved my life. Thank you!!!

For those still trying to imagine a different path in life, non-profit and voluntary sector provisions can help individuals to discover a new way forward. In their theory of cognitive transformation, Giordano, Cernkovich, and Rudolph (2002) argue that for persistent offenders to desist from crime, an important stage in the process revolves around selecting and using transformative opportunities, described as “hooks for change” (p. 992), that are available within their environment. Crucially, individuals must be able to perceive these hooks and recognize the potential meaningfulness for their lives. Living in a dynamic environment that offers vibrant and worthwhile activities increases the chances for such hooks to be found, whether that is specifically through education or through a wide array of other volunteer-led activities as demonstrated below.

Before prison, Dee said that her life as a musician was all about “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” While in a California prison she took a mandated state-contracted substance abuse treatment program and began developing her “relationship with God.” She said, “It hit me like a ton of bricks ... I’m going to have to change everything when I get out of here.” Dee was “freaked out,” worrying that “I don’t know anything else” and wondering “what do I do?” However, she found an answer through one of the volunteer-led prison ministries that she regularly attended where she encountered a community volunteer, “with tattoos [and] spiked hair,” playing a guitar. Dee recognized him from a punk rock band that he had performed with in the past. Watching him play music as part of this prison ministry she realized, “he’s rocking for God!” For Dee this recognition meant: “‘Whoa, I can still rock. But now I just rock for God,’ you know.” For over 10 years Carl has been a volunteer associate chaplain at a California county jail, and for the past 5 years has also been running prison ministry programs in several California prisons. He developed his relationship with God whilst serving time in prison in the 1970s through the mid-1980s. He talks of experiencing a “born again” conversion halfway through his sentence that led to a profound transformation in his life. He removed himself from the prison gang warfare in which he had played an active role as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and which had led to his conviction for a murder in prison. As part of his developing religious practice he began to attend prison ministries facilitated by outside community groups. He recalls knowing early on in his experience of participating in ministries that this would connect with his future life. Carl recounted how he spent the last 7 years of his sentence: “out of the gang and in the body of Christ, studying His word, [and] fellowshipping.” He stated that: “the support that I received ... to get me through the last 7 years was through Christian fellowships with other people.” He has been working with ministries ever since his parole in 1985.

The community-led prison ministries that Dee attended six evenings a week whilst incarcerated also informed her desire to return to correctional facilities as a ministry volunteer, which shall be discussed in the “Giving Back” section below. However, it is noteworthy that the group Dee attended the remaining evening of each week, a Toastmasters meeting run by community volunteers, also helped her to prepare for her future plans. Like Toastmasters groups in the community, participants gather to practice public speaking by giving speeches and receiving feedback from fellow group members. Dee had already recognized that through ministry work in future she was “definitely going to be speaking and telling my story.” She had thought: “I need to learn how to speak better” and had concluded that the Toastmasters meetings would help her achieve this goal.

Like other California research participants, both Dee and Carl talked about finding hope in prison, and they contrasted this with the despair they had previously experienced. Carl said of the early years of his prison sentence: “I saw the hopelessness, I had no hope.” Dee said that she learned in prison that there is “hope after dope.” For Dee and for Carl, the opportunity to partake in these optional activities complemented other personal or required pursuits and enhanced their optimism for the future. Their experience of finding hope resonates with accounts from the distance learners. Patrick echoed many of the students when he said that his PET-funded courses helped to provide “hope and direction” for the future. And Ed, who entered prison in England with no qualifications, said that: “When I first came here, it was ‘my life is over ...’ the criminal record and all the stigma attached, but because of my education and my being able to move on, it has actually proved to be the most positive [thing] of my life so far.”

Significantly, Burnett and Maruna (2004) have found that an increased sense of hope, which they equate with “the desire for a particular outcome and also the perceived ability and means of achieving the outcome” (pp. 395-396) is correlated with a lower return rate to prison. They argue that: “Participants with high hope scores [before leaving prison] seem better able to cope with the problems they encounter after they leave the prison walls” (p. 398).

Exposure to new ideas and activities through charity-funded education or volunteer-led provision may broaden horizons, influence goals, shape ideas about future directions, and help to inspire hope. These activities may work alongside other personal or state-run endeavors the individuals are involved with in prison (see also Hughes, 2012). The pursuits may foster imagination regarding what might be possible in future, enabling a vision of an alternative path. This can impact not only future lives, but also affect time spent in prison, as the next section will address.

  • [1] Research participants’ names have been changed in order to protect anonymity.
  • [2] In England and Wales, a “lifer” has a life sentence with a tariff that indicates the minimumtime they are expected to serve before the Parole Board considers them for release. If theyare released they remain on “life license,” subject to recall to prison as long as they live. Mostlifers, like Joe, and Bruce who will feature later, do not have a “whole-life tariff” that makesthem ineligible for release.
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