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

Volunteer Perspectives on Challenges Faced

While facilitators revealed important points concerning satisfaction and motivation related to their volunteer writing work, we also recognize the link between sustainability and compassion fatigue. We turn now to the tensions, stresses, and traumas that regularly emerge for literacy volunteers working through (and sometimes around) institutional rules and regulations in jail. We highlight five common challenges faced by volunteers: human confinement, difficult disclosures, participant recidivism, feelings of isolation, and activist tensions.

Participating in Human Confinement

Longtime volunteer Margaret described her emotional reaction every week in having to walk through the prison: [1]

It can be difficult for volunteers to move between the roles demanded by the jail (hall monitor), by the program (writing program facilitator) and one’s own autonomy (independent person with free will). Margaret’s reflection not only highlights the split between the “institution” and “a human being,” but also spotlights the intense physical reaction of holding her breath every week. Without exploring these tensions and reactions, such as through the guided writing exercises that we will suggest, Margaret risks becoming overwhelmed by the realities of volunteering within a car- ceral institution.

  • [1] feel it definitely in the walk through the hallways. I hold my breath throughthat whole thing; I don’t like it. I can understand the need for that kind ofregimentation and the women certainly, for the most part, seem to take toit, like “we know we’re supposed to walk on the right side and stop on thecorners and if a guy’s coming.” They know it all and, for the most part, dealwith it. I’m just not comfortable with it because it seems to underscore thefact that we’re in an institution, which we can’t get away from. Plus, we’rewalking along [with] a human being that you can’t really talk to.
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