How to Volunteer in a Prison: Your Guide to Helping Out
Volunteering can be a constructive and healthy habit to get into. Regardless of where you volunteer, you get to help others somehow, whether it’s helping them with day-to-day activities, providing mental health support, or something else.
You might consider volunteering in a prison as another way to help your community, but you’re not sure if it’s something that prisons will allow. This guide is not legal advice, but it provides general information about volunteering in a prison and how you can get started.
Can I Volunteer in a Prison?
Each prison has its own regulations about whether volunteers can work there and how they handle the volunteer process if there is a program in place. But in most cases, yes, you can volunteer in a prison. In fact, many prisons welcome the help from community members who want to make a difference either helping with prison tasks or assisting the lives of the prisoners who live there.
Here’s what you need to know about volunteering in a prison:
Volunteering at State vs. Federal Prisons
Both federal and state prisons may allow volunteers, but their programs and rules may be a bit different. The type of volunteering you do at either type of facility may also vary because they function differently and have inmates with different types of crimes.
Still, at both federal and state prisons, you can expect to aid prisoners in many different ways, depending on their needs. For example, you might work with prisoners on vocational training to help them get a job when they leave. You might also assist with coming up with activities for prisoners to participate in during their free time.
Depending on the type of facility you volunteer for, you will likely undergo a specific volunteering process that could be different from other processes you’ve been through to volunteer. Be sure to ask your coordinator any questions before you begin the screening process to make sure you understand each step and what’s expected of you.
There are also local jails that you may be able to volunteer for that will have their own sets of rules for volunteers. These are operated at the county level, so you’ll need to check with your county’s Corrections Division for more details about volunteering.
Volunteering at Multiple Facilities
State prison volunteers can usually work at other state prisons within that state. That’s because the state Department of Corrections is the department that approves you for volunteering. You’ll have all screening, applying, and training done through the DOC, which will make your approval useful for other facilities within the state (some states may vary these rules a bit, though).
In most cases, you may still need to meet other requirements set in place by each facility you volunteer for. For example, a prison might have its own interview process to make sure you have the skills and personality to meet the tasks it has openings for. Some state prisons require you to have an invitation from the volunteer program coordinator to become a volunteer for that facility.
You can call the volunteer coordinator of a facility within the state you’re approved for to ask about the qualifications it requires and what additional steps you may need to take. Let the coordinator know what credentials you have and where you’ve already volunteered.
Volunteering with a Past Record
If you have a past criminal or incarceration record yourself but want to volunteer in a prison, you may be able to do so. Again, the requirements will differ from facility to facility. Still, in many cases, prisons willingly accept volunteers who have made positive changes in their own lives and have a desire to do the same for others.
Generally, you’ll need to have been released from your facility and not have had any other marks on your record for at least the past 12 months. Like other volunteers, you’ll need to submit to a background check, so the volunteer coordinator will be able to see what’s on your record.
During your interview, it’s best if you’re honest about your past and what you’ve done to make changes in your life since your incarceration. The volunteer coordinator will likely be happy to know how well you’ve been doing and that you’re proactively working on bettering yourself.
The Benefits of Volunteering in a Prison
What benefits might volunteering in a prison bring? For starters, volunteering can have some positives for you. Volunteering is known to help people feel better about themselves. If you’re going through a tough time physically or emotionally, the simple act of volunteering could be something that enables you to pull out ahead.
Volunteering can also help you feel more confident and happier overall. Plus, you’ll get to meet people who you never would’ve had the chance to meet in your day-to-day life. Those relationships you form could turn into long-lasting ones you never expected.
Even more important are the benefits that volunteering in a prison can provide to the inmates and the community. Prison volunteering is a help to your community because prisons are essentially community services. They keep criminals off the streets, making areas safer for people who live there. Your help allows the prison to keep doing what it does every day.
Prisoners can benefit from your help in several ways. With volunteer programs, they can learn to overcome their addictions, learn new skills that can help them with daily tasks or work when they get released, learn to communicate with people better, and reduce their own stress and anxiety.
No matter what type of task you volunteer for in a prison, you’re giving the gift of your help.
How to Volunteer in a Prison
Although the rules for volunteering vary with each facility, here are some general guidelines you can follow to help you get started:
Types of Prison Volunteer Programs
There are many types of volunteer programs a prison might have, so most volunteers can find something that matches their skills. Here are some examples of volunteer programs you might find in a prison:
- Art or music programs
- Library/book discussion programs
- Vocational training
- Health, wellness, and fitness training
- Alcohol or drug abuse support
- Mental health services
- Religious or spiritual programs
- Sport programs
- Tutoring or learning a new skill
- Recreational activities
- Dog training programs
- Parenting classes
How to Get Started
The best way to get started with the volunteering process is to call the facility for which you’re interested in volunteering. As to speak with the volunteer coordinator to ask questions about whether there are current opportunities available and what you need to do to apply. The coordinator can give you contact information for the state or federal agency you’ll need to go through to get started.
When it’s time to apply, come prepared with a pen to fill out paperwork. Bring your driver’s license and birth certificate along with contact information for references and an emergency contact. Some agencies may also require your social security card to photocopy.
The process may take a couple of weeks while the agency verifies your information, approves your paperwork, and gets your background check results.
Volunteering in a Prison
Prison volunteering can make a significant impact on your life and the lives of prisoners. As a volunteer, you can assist with daily tasks, activities, and prison programs that help inmates lead more fulfilling, productive lives in and out of prison.
Remember that the above information is just an informational guide. Contact the facility you want to volunteer in for the most detailed and accurate information about its requirements and process.