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Pennsylvania volunteers build bridges between our prisons and the community.

As commissioner of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, I shudder to think what life in our facilities would be without volunteers. There is no question in my mind that it would result in a loss of hope for many inmates.

We are fortunate in Pennsylvania to benefit from the efforts of about 3,000 volunteers. About 900 have been formally trained and enter our institutions regularly to participate in an array of educational, religious, service and support programs.

Many others provide valuable services without ever coming inside facilities. For example, they help inmates nearing release find jobs, they look after incarcerated women's children, they provide support to inmates' families and they collect educational and recreational supplies for our prisons. Organizations such as the Gray Panthers provide services and programs targeted specifically at older inmates. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts provide peer support through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and activities. A group called Thresholds helps inmates with problem-solving and decision-making skills. Religious groups such as Yokefellows and Prison Fellowship conduct services and religious education programs and provide individual spiritual counseling. An organization called the Voluntary Action Center coordinates the annual Pennsylvania Prison Runathon at all our institutions. This event has raised more than $120,000 over the last 12 years for Big Brothers/Big Sisters-type organizations across the state.

Volunteers are invaluable because they build bridges from the outside world to the prison environment. Prisons historically have been isolated, often insular and parochial entities. This is because we created these institutions to protect the public by isolating offenders from the community. The principle, "out of sight, out of mind," is nowhere more applicable than in corrections. Unfortunately, this has led to two problems--problems that volunteers can contribute to solving.

First, because of prisons' isolation, what goes on inside the walls is generally invisible to the public. Interaction between staff and inmates is not open to public scrutiny. In any closed institution, management must be on guard against losing its sense of compassion. We must resist becoming so isolated that we lose touch with our own humanity.

The second problem created by our system is that we've oversold the notion of individualism and thus downplayed the role relationships play in influencing behavior. In some respects, we have become a nation of people so involved in the individual pursuit of happiness that we have forgotten how important we are to each other. Regrettably, the pursuit of happiness has come to be defined and fueled by television's definition of happiness as material possession and "feeling good."

Because of this emphasis on individualism, we tend to make the mistake of looking at all problems as simply the personal failure of individuals. While I recognize the need for the criminal justice system to hold individuals accountable for their crimes, we must, within our limits, bring a more balanced perspective to this issue.

I believe relationships can do a lot more to influence behavior than the system generally recognizes. When we lock up offenders, we tend to take relationships as a positive influence out of the picture.

If we are to change this, and I think we should, we have to change the culture of the prison environment. And that is where volunteers come in. Changing the prison culture involves opening doors and inviting law-abiding citizens to participate in the corrections agenda. Our aim should be to build relationships between the outside world and the inside world that can be the basis for an individual's choosing a new lifestyle.

Volunteers, because they are not responsible for supervising offenders, enter into relationships with them by choice. They bring to relationships a willingness to accept offenders, not for what they were or what they did, but for who they can be. Volunteers are potential role models whose behavior can be and often is imitated by offenders. They also can be role models for staff.

Volunteers' mere presence can make the prison environment more humane and make the prison a more visible and open institution. Their work has a beneficial effect not only in terms of what they do but, more important, because of the spirit in which it is done. Volunteers put relationships as a positive influence back into the picture. They have a real effect on offenders' behavior while incarcerated and after release.

It is my personal philosophy that there must be hope within our prisons. I would not want to be associated with a system that had no hope. Hope must abide in a belief in the principle that every individual has the capacity to change. It is up to us in corrections to give those entrusted to our care and supervision the tools and the opportunity to change if they choose to do so--a chance to become law-abiding, productive citizens with a vested interest in lawful behavior. That is a special challenge and one we cannot shoulder alone. Volunteers are an important part of that process. That is why they are important to us. That is why we value what they do. And that is precisely why we need to continually strengthen the ties between us and them.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Lehman, Joseph D.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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