Volunteers Play a Key Role in Breaking Down the Patterns That Enable Prisons

A prison volunteer named Janet Wolf opened her first meeting with 12 incarcerated men like this: “As we begin our circle this morning, let us go around and say one word that describes our state of mind.”

As one of the 12 men, I found myself scrambling for a word. It had been years since anyone cared about my state of mind. It was strange. This free-world lady, obviously highly educated from her great command of language, wanting to come into a men’s prison and conduct a think tank-style workshop. “Confused” — that could be my word. No, that would make me look bad.

One by one, we said our word, no one holding eye contact for more than a second or two, the normal prison conduct when addressing staff. Doing so could have you written up for intimidation. Wolf stopped.

“Everyone, look at me, keep looking at me,” she said as she looked into our eyes one at a time. “Blue eyes, brown eyes. … You are all beautiful human beings that deserve love and respect.”

My heart raced, my cheeks filled with blood, and tears streamed from my eyes. For the first time since I got locked up, I felt like a human being.

Prison volunteers like Wolf are an untapped resource, greatly underutilized by prisons. Volunteers are community members who have undergone background checks, just like paid employees, and who want to share their knowledge and time with those incarcerated. During my nearly three decades of incarceration, community volunteers have dramatically changed my life and the lives of countless incarcerated people.

But prisons are becoming more hesitant about allowing these volunteers inside the razor wire. They must fear volunteers reporting to the larger society what they find inside the gates, including the institutional dehumanization of the residents and the deficit of so many needed programs.

“Much to my dismay, most of our prisons are not places of rehabilitation, education, and nurturance for so many who could return to their communities as mentors and full-fledged citizens.”

Volunteers can share information about the prison conditions we face with other voters, and activist groups can form, and all of a sudden, voters can demand change. This scares the bejesus out of prison administrations. What volunteers can offer to incarcerated people is so critical that we need to find ways to make their participation easier and more commonplace.

The trend in the U.S. over the last few years has been to bring fewer people up for parole hearings and release fewer people to parole. One reason for this is that fewer cases are being heard. Many other times, the reason for denial is the lack of programming and classes the person has been involved with. This could include things like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, or classes on anger management, financial planning, family reintegration, PTSD, and others — all of which can be led by community volunteers.

The word “denied” is heard by incarcerated people over and over again. Not only from the parole board at a hearing, but also from prison staff, who are responsible for providing the programming and education needed for us to be successful when released. So for insiders, volunteers can be like manna from heaven.

Julie Russell, who taught yoga at a maximum-security prison in Tennessee for 15 years, never felt fearful while inside, but did feel a lot of joy. She told me: “To teach something that I had received from wonderful teachers that I could now share and enjoy sharing with those so willing to participate and receive for themselves a practice that would nurture them throughout life … is the joy.”

Russell’s tenure as a volunteer came to a close at the onset of the pandemic. She still stays in contact with some of her students who have been released. As for those still incarcerated, she says, “My heart aches for so many still behind walls without true tools of recovery from a system that needs drastic reform!”

Russell’s volunteering may have ended, but it left her with an insight that few voting citizens get a chance to come to: “Much to my dismay, most of our prisons are not places of rehabilitation, education, and nurturance for so many who could return to their communities as mentors and full-fledged citizens.”

Prison’s goal is to destroy individualization and to institutionalize a person, much like training a herd of cattle to come and go to the milk bar at a certain time. Stray cattle cost time and money to the farmer, and incarcerated people thinking they have human rights, talents, or expression of any kind threatens the status quo of the prison industrial machine.

Volunteers look into the eyes of the incarcerated and not through them. They see potential and redemption and not worthlessness and condemnation. People on the inside need a sense of self-worth to make it when released, but self-worth is contrary to what prison promotes. People need to be able to find a home, find a job and find a community — each of which requires a person to feel worthy.

When he returned from teaching overseas, Sam Katz was looking for an opportunity to volunteer in the U.S. After 19 years of teaching, Katz found himself at a Tennessee prison, where a prison chaplain asked him to volunteer. He didn’t know what to expect — then his students blew him away. When I interviewed him about his experience, he told me:

The focus of the students in that class dazzled me. I became a college professor with the hope of that level of intensity, logic and clarity from students, though it was only seen in high-level honors seminars. The students at Riverbend were prepared to grapple with the class materials and questions, and the arguments put forth by classmates. The precision with which students approached others’ arguments was magnificent — informed, logical, and drawing from the materials and other classmates’ comments. The class was amazingly heterogeneous. Some students had masters’ degrees; others hadn’t finished middle school. Despite this, there wasn’t a sense of elitism or vanity that I saw. One student was not always up to speed on the readings, but paid close attention to his peers’ comments, and could coalesce these into summative analyses that bespoke a keen intellect. To be able to do that at all is not easy, but to do it on the fly within two hours is truly remarkable. I’ve never seen it elsewhere.

Like so many people who get the opportunity to volunteer in a prison, Katz and Russell brought skills and knowledge that the prison and the state did not have to pay for. Their skills benefited a community of people who would have never been able to receive these lessons otherwise, and may very well help their students receive a “yes” at a parole hearing.

Allowing community volunteers inside prison walls could drastically change the trend of increased parole denials. A person who has learned from volunteers like Russell and Katz will make a better neighbor, community member, worker, parent, spouse and taxpayer when released from prison. If there are shameful things to see and hear inside, let it be. Our communities will benefit from scrutiny and from the change that will come through truth-telling about prisons.

On those days when I’m lost in the chaos of prison violence and staff so quick to remind me that I am nothing, I remember Janet Wolf, who so lovingly reminded me that I am a beautiful human being who deserves love and respect. Volunteers give so much, but they also receive something from the experience of visiting people in prison. From his own experience, Katz says it best, “I’m a better teacher, a better human being, for the experience. And for that, I am very grateful.”