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

Volunteer Population

For most of the 7-year history of REACH, White students and women have comprised the clear majority of volunteers (i.e., 60 to 70 %). In this respect, REACH has been similar to most college volunteer programs (Butin, 2006; Chapman & Morley, 1999). However, we have actively recruited students of color as volunteers, and particularly men of color given the institutional demographics of juvenile hall. Over the last 2 years these efforts have been fairly successful in racially diversifying REACH so that now 50 to 60 % of REACH volunteers are students of color, with 11 to 16 % Black and 33 to 40 % Latino. Black and Latino men are 11 to 17 % of our volunteer core, a fairly good representation given the numbers of men of color on our college campus, but a small percentage compared to the numbers in juvenile hall. And we have often struggled to retain Black and Latino male volunteers, a struggle which inspired many of the questions this chapter aims to answer.

Data Collection

I have been conducting research on the effects of this volunteer project both on incarcerated youth and on college volunteers since 2011 when I secured human subjects approval. This research focuses on how the relationships and dialogues forged through volunteering affect how young people, both inside and outside of the juvenile justice system, make sense of race, class, and citizenship in contemporary America. This particular chapter draws on student-written reflections and interviews with college student volunteers.

I conducted 1 to 2 hour open-ended interviews with 34 REACH volunteers, including 14 White students and 20 students of color who are the primary focus of this chapter. There were four Black students, two students who alternated between identifying as Black and biracial, ten Latino students, two Asian students, and two students who alternated between identifying as multiracial and as White.[1] The interviewees represented a good sample of our volunteers. Sixty-five percent were women, and Latinas significantly outnumbered Latinos and African Americans of both genders as they do in our volunteer pool. Over 45 % of all participants and 55 % of participants of color were REST majors or had race as a core part of their course of study in another interdisciplinary major. Most of these students saw their work in juvenile hall as an integral part of their academic study. However 40 % of all volunteers, and 25 % of the volunteers of color who participated in the study, had taken few classes that focused directly on racism or encouraged the exploration of the significance of race in their own lives.

The questions I asked were intentionally very open-ended to capture volunteers’ own perspectives on what they learned from their volunteer experience and how they came to understand their own racial, class, and gender identities as they moved between campus and juvenile hall. My own identity as a White middle-class woman and my position as a professor and project supervisor certainly played a role in these open-ended interviews. My role as founder and supervisor of REACH may have inhibited students from speaking more critically about their experiences in, and the design of, the program. In order to mitigate this possibility. I expressed my interest in their critical perspectives and my hope that they could help us improve the program. My close relationships with many students in the program also offered benefits in the research process. I knew 75 % of the participants very well, having taught them in multiple classes and mentored them as volunteers for several years. These personal relationships enabled the kind of open discussion of race that might not have been possible otherwise.

I transcribed all interviews, and then coded the interviews, my field notes, and the weekly response papers from two of my Inside Out classes.

I identified the key themes for this analysis from this process of coding, writing analytic memos and discussing my emerging analysis with longterm volunteers in REACH. Although my analysis is fundamentally qualitative and ethnographic, I also calculated some basic descriptive percentages to enable me to more carefully compare key themes within the narratives of volunteers across race, class, and gender lines. For example, I calculated the frequency of women and men talking about their own experiences confronting racial stereotypes or police profiling and the percent of White volunteers compared to volunteers of color who spoke of family and close friends in the criminal justice system.

  • [1] I use students’ descriptions of their own racial and ethnic identities to place them in racial categories.
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