Another View on Prison Volunteers – Taking Civil Society into the Prison

Prison volunteers as the bridge between prison and civil society

“I have been involved in this strange, fascinating and tragic world of incarceration for over 25 years. I have had many ideas about penal reform in that time, many of the subsequently proved quite wrong. I now think there are two basic things for which one should aim. One, get as many people as possible out of prison and two, get as many people from the outside, non-prison world, into prisons” (1) 

Baroness Vivien Stern, a respected British prison reformer, reminded New Zealanders on her 2006 visit to New Zealand, that the State’s responsibility is to run prisons as part of civil society – as a public service accountable to Parliament.  Stern made it clear that more people from the outside need to be in prison, alongside the prisoners and the personnel, showing that the prison is part of society and that prisoners are citizens, thus ensuring that the values of the outside world, the non-carceral society, are brought into the prison. It is an obvious but important point.

 Volunteers are not there to represent the values of the prison – they represent the values of civil society. It is rare indeed, that the two sets of values are identical.  Research shows that where there is a concentration of volunteers moving in and out of a prison, there is an absence of corruption. Volunteers serve to stabilize the prison environment – prisoners welcome visitors as “people who care”, and their response to volunteers is generally courteous and positive. The negative behaviour associated with the prison culture is put on hold. Prison officers, aware that there is an independent set of eyes and ears in their midst, also modify their behaviour. Abuse and corrupt practice is modified through the presence of civil society.

 That was certainly experience with  the 60 bed faith based unit, which functioned between 2003 and 2010, and achieved the lowest level of violence, drug use, and breaches of discipline in the country.  One of the key differences was that there were an average of 70 volunteer visits a week, constantly moving in and about the unit – most other units were lucky to have 10 volunteer visits a week. 


In 2003, the Department of Corrections estimated that there were around 1500 volunteers regular visiting prisons. Until then, the department had no clear policy guidelines about volunteers. In its initial efforts to establish a volunteer database it discovered there were in fact, nearly 3000 volunteers who were regular visitors.   The Department of Corrections estimated that while the monetary value of a volunteer was around $14.13, the nominal value of voluntary hours accrued annually was $1,514,909 - a “substantial return on the levels of investment required to manage and administer a professional volunteer policy.”  At the same time, it acknowledged the value “fails to reflect a myriad of other more intangible benefits such as providing a bridge between prison and the wider community and the normalisation of the prison environment.”


Based on that cost/benefit analysis, the Department elbowed aside the voluntary organisations, imposed its own policies on volunteers, and managed the interface between volunteers and the prison. Representatives of civil society were effectively removed from the equation.

 In the process, it has lost sight of the need to maintain a continuum of care between the prison and the community.  Prison chaplains who work with prisoners inside the prison, are now forbidden to continue the relationship, once the prisoner leaves.  Prison volunteers and service providers who work with offenders in the community, and who ‘know’ people on probation or visit prisoners on a personal basis, are regarded as having a ‘potential conflict of interest’.  So much for a   commitment to effective prisoner reintegration. 

 Offenders grow up and live most of their lives in communities - not in corrections programmes.  What prisoners don’t need when they are released from prison, is an insular, professionals-driven focus on their needs and risks.   For reintegration to be successful it must draw on and support naturally occurring community processes through which informal support and controls traditionally take place.  Families and whānau , teachers, neighbours, ministers and others provide both support and guidance in re-socialization and maturation processes. Citizens, not professionals are the primary agents of reintegration.  Prison volunteers are important in that they provide a critical link between the prison and the community. 

In his important analysis of social and cultural shifts in contemporary society, David Garland describes a shift over the last two decades toward punitive justice and security build-up.(2) Part of that trend is the expansion and extension of the level of social control in society. Corrections no longer focuses on what happens within the prison and when a prisoner is on parole, – it seeks to extend its grip into areas of activity that were formerly the province of civil society. The movement is toward centralised command and coercion – acting upon universal solutions imposed from above.

 The expansion of the Corrections empire into areas where it has little or no experience, credibility, or networks, further interferes with its ability to perform its core functions responsively.  We need civil society back in the prison.  

[1] Stern, Vivien “Are Prisoners Enemies or Citizens? What is the Responsibility of the State?” Justice Reflections 2004, JR 37- 44

 (2)  Garland, David “The Culture of Control – Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society” The University of Chicago Press 2001