“This is our job, everybody, as a state to help people and to help each other. We’ve got government programs, but that’s not enough. We need to put hearts into it.” - Governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “To change someone, you must first love them, and they must know that you love them.” Government programs cannot love them; only people can provide that love. And that is why utilizing volunteers to lead prison programs is so important. They provide what government can’t; love.
Recruiting and utilizing volunteers should be a top priority of the Bureau of Prisons. Sadly, it is not. While many federal wardens welcome volunteers, many others view volunteers as a burden and extra work. These wardens discourage volunteers from coming into their prison. They erect virtually impenetrable bureaucratic barriers to outside volunteers. In doing so, they are pushing away helping hands to do much this needed work. The effort required to manage volunteers is very small when compared to the reduced recidivism and increased public safety that result from offenders successfully transitioning from prison back to their communities.
Volunteers can teach languages, math, writing, and preparation for GED tests. They can also lead addiction groups, life skills seminars, ethics, anger management, spousal relationships, and victim-offender dialogues – just a few of the worthwhile classes they can provide to the inmates. These activities help lower recidivism and increase public safety. In addition, in-prison programs fill the hours of confinement with positive activities. Their transition back to the community is made much easier if the inmates spend 8 hours a day involved in positive activities. Currently there are not enough staff members to offer many classes and programs. Volunteers fill this need, and provide healthy role models and relationships as well.
Volunteers and mentors serve a major purpose within in the criminal justice system. To reduce the number of those able to volunteer is detrimental to the rehabilitation processes of inmates and needs to be stopped. Volunteers can provide a form of rehabilitation that prison guards cannot. They can teach, love, and pray for inmates in order to encourage them. To deny inmates access to these people is to deny them the chance of growth. Prison should be a time where those incarcerated get to learn how to change their lives, instead, it is reiterating the poor belief of retaliation or revenge for a wrong. This is not right and inmates are paying the price of these negative policies. Inmates, society, and the economy would all be better off with a larger access to volunteers.
Unfortunately in November 2016, the BOP adopted new policies for Volunteer Services. These changes have substantially increased the difficulty of certifying unescorted volunteers, and reduced the volunteers in federal prisons by a significant number. The most detrimental aspect of this new policy is that for the first time departments wishing to use volunteers are now required to pay $1531.00 to OPM for a Tier 2 Background Investigation on any volunteers needing unescorted status. This fee has to be paid every 5 years, which has essentially ended the presence of unescorted volunteers at many institutions. The BOP also adopted a policy stating that volunteers and mentors are no longer allowed to have contact with ex-offenders. This severely hurts ex-offenders in the reentry process, and increases their risk of recidivism. These inmates learned to lean on and seek help from these volunteers and mentors and for the BOP to take that away from them following release is not only unnecessary, but also cruel. Volunteers and mentors provide a better return rate on the investment of the criminal justice system, therefore making better use of taxpayer money, and saving in avoidance costs such as recidivism.