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South Carolina volunteer agency plays vital role in corrections.

With 5,000 volunteers, the Alston Wilkes Society--a non-profit agency that assists offenders, former offenders and their families in South Carolina--has become a strong force in South Carolina corrections. The Society is a good example of how a volunteer agency can work closely with state and federal corrections agencies to benefit offenders, the system and the public.

The Society's goals are wide-ranging--working with offenders in the areas of employment, housing, family assistance, parole assistance, prison visitation and court mediation; encouraging criminal justice reform through legislation and public education; and serving as a voluntary support agency to rehabilitative programs within South Carolina criminal justice agencies.

The Society's annual budget is approximately $2 million. Eighty-five percent of the budget comes from state and federal contracts, 10 percent comes from various United Way offices in South Carolina, and the remainder is given through contributions and membership fees from the Society's volunteer members. Our volunteers and 90 paid staff serve about 18,000 people annually.

A Partnership

The organization was founded in 1962 by the Rev. Eli Alston Wilkes Jr., a Methodist minister who died in 1963. The relationship between the Society and South Carolina corrections agencies has been strong since the group's inception.

Our first executive director, appointed in 1966, was Parker Evatt, who is now the state's corrections commissioner. Several other Alston Wilkes Society directors, presidents and board members also have been corrections commissioners or have served on the state's parole board.

Corrections officials say Alston Wilkes programs are a valuable part of South Carolina corrections. For example, inmates participating in the volunteer visitation program have been found to have fewer incident reports in custody.

Says Evatt, "In describing the work of the Alston Wilkes Society, I'd like to echo a statement I heard former Commissioner William Leeke say many times: We are an overcrowded prison system, but I wonder how much more overcrowded we would be without the work of the Alston Wilkes Society. They play a major role in our efforts, and all phases of the criminal justice system in South Carolina are improved because of them."

The Society recognizes that most people who go to prison eventually are released. One of our major goals is to get released offenders back to work so they can become taxpayers instead of tax burdens. We also offer a variety of services to help offenders' families.

We educate the public about our services and recruit volunteers through media efforts such as newspaper articles and talk show appearances and through speaking to church groups and other civic organizations.

The Society has 10 county volunteer chapters throughout the state to ensure that we meet the needs of individual communities. And as an ACA affiliate, the organization also is active in national corrections issues.

Volunteers play a major role in the Society's Case Management and Volunteer Services program and in operating our adult and youth residential services programs.

Case Management and Volunteer Services

Case management. Since the early 1970s, an Alston Wilkes Society staff person has been in attendance at all parole hearings. This practice began at the request of the South Carolina Parole Board as a way to help ensure that eligible offenders are not denied parole due to an inability to develop a parole plan while incarcerated.

Case managers ensure each offender has a parole plan. They provide individual and group counseling for inmates preparing to go before the Parole Board, instructing them on what to expect during their hearing. They also help the inmates plan for housing and employment upon release.

The corrections department grants full access to all facilities. Though reduced funding has recently resulted in cutbacks, case managers still travel to all the state correctional facilities on a regular basis.

Adult Prison Visitation Program. Volunteers taking part in the Adult Prison Visitation Program make a commitment to visit an assigned inmate at least once a month for a minimum of six months. They receive training and are given a volunteer handbook.

Volunteer visitors often assist Alston Wilkes Society case managers with parole planning when the inmate assigned to them is ready for parole, attending the inmate's hearing to speak on his or her behalf and assisting in the inmate's job search.

The visitation program offers inmates an opportunity to connect with the outside community. The story of "Robert," a 58-year-old inmate serving a life sentence in a South Carolina prison, is one example of the importance of this program. Robert has been in prison for 23 years. For the past 20 years, Robert has enjoyed the frequent visits of volunteers Allen and Audrey Schurr. They are Robert's only personal contact with the outside world.

The Schurrs' visits give Robert something to look forward to--shared food, card games and the chance to discuss each others' life experiences. Robert says he appreciates the couple because he knows they are sincere and straightforward with him.

"The Volunteer Visitation Program is extremely important," he says. "It provides hope to the lost and lonely where before there was only doom. It also gives society an opportunity to learn that people do make mistakes in life and that all prisoners aren't necessarily bad."

The Schuffs find the visits personally satisfying. "We can't think of anything else we could do that could have this much impact on society," says Allen Schurr.

Youth Visitation Program. The Youth Visitation Program functions in much the same way as the adult program. Volunteers visit Youth Services facilities, maintaining one-on-one contact with the youths and organizing occasional activities such as outdoor picnics.

In addition, Alston Wilkes Society staff and volunteers have sponsored Christmas parties for all youths in custody in South Carolina for the past 23 years.

Survival Program. The Survival Program was created in 1984 by Alston Wilkes Case Manager Libby Rhodes and a group of inmates who expressed a desire to return to their community and stay out of prison. The group included violent and non-violent offenders, first-time and repeat offenders, and inmates with drug and alcohol problems.

Inmates in this program meet weekly to address a number of issues, including drug and alcohol problems, accepting responsibility for behavior, working with parole officers and getting along with institutional staff.

To ensure that inmates continue to receive support after their release, Rhodes and volunteer John Conway hold regularly scheduled meetings with them in the community. These sessions help participants work on the goals they made while incarcerated.

Arbitration. Trained volunteers, at the invitation of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, help serve as arbitrators between inmates and the corrections department administration.

Mediation program. The Society has a volunteer mediation program serving the city courts in Columbia. Volunteers are trained as co-mediators to handle cases referred to the Alston Wilkes Society from the city courts. These individuals mediate discussions between victims and offenders in an effort to resolve cases in a way that satisfies both sides.

Halfway Houses

The Alston Wilkes Society operates four adult halfway houses, serving state and federal offenders convicted of primarily non-violent crimes. Each house has a full-time paid staff as well as a facility director who are employees of the Society. The director is responsible for establishing individual house procedures for the use of volunteers.

Each halfway house program has a Citizens Advisory Council composed of volunteers from the community. The councils help ensure that communications between the houses and the community remain open. They also provide a variety of volunteer services.

The Society operates two houses in Greenville. The Advisory Council for those homes meets monthly at one of the houses to discuss facility and offender needs. When necessary, this group recruits skilled volunteers to help make repairs and renovations to the houses. Chapter members also work directly with clients, conducting life skills groups focusing on topics such as money management and adjustment to community life.

Greenville Volunteer Chapter President John Conway is active at both of the city's halfway houses. He was instrumental in the leasing of one of the homes from the City of Greenville, and he recently organized a group of volunteers to complete some needed renovations to the house. Conway also has participated in raising finances and securing grants for the homes. In addition, he refinishes furniture and helps with electrical and carpentry work. He spends an average of 25 hours per week doing halfway house maintenance work and one-on-one offender counseling.

In Florence, the volunteer efforts of Citizens Advisory Council member Tom Kellam have had a great impact on the operation of that city's halfway house. Kellam, who works part-time at a local Presbyterian church, began volunteering for the Society by providing jobs for halfway house residents in early 1988. He hired an expectant mother in the house to be an assistant in the church's Child Care Center, providing her not only with income but also child care training.

When Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina in 1989, the Florence halfway house suffered considerable roof damage, and staff and offenders were forced to evacuate the building after the storm. Kellam arranged to house the residents at a Boy Scout hut on the church's campus for a week while repairs were made.

Each year, Kellam arranges for all residents to receive Christmas presents from his church members, and he ensures that recreational equipment is purchased or donated to the house for the residents' leisure time activities.

Volunteers play a very different role at the halfway house in Columbia. Since the home began accepting Mariel Cubans into the program last year, several volunteers from the Spanish-speaking community have helped translate written information such as rules and regulations into Spanish for these residents. They also have attended orientation sessions to translate orally for those who are unable to read in either language. And in preparation for the residents' release, volunteers have taken them to nearby Spanish church services.

High Management Group Home

A fifth residential home operated by the Society is the High Management Group Home, which houses boys ages 10 to 17. Not all the youths have committed crimes--some are referrals from the Department of Social Services.

Youths at the home receive needed support from volunteer Serena Staggers. A retired college counselor, Staggers became interested in volunteering in children's homes after a friend told her of the desperate need for minority volunteers in children's homes.

Staggers has recruited her pastor and others from her church to visit the home with her and conduct activities such as games and field trips with the youths. In addition, she and the church group provide each boy a cake and party on his birthday.

At Christmas, Staggers arranges for the house to have a live tree selected and decorated by the youths. In the spring and fall, she supplies them with plant seeds for their small garden and teaches them about the rewards of gardening.

Staggers often refers to the youths as "my boys" and says the activities she plans are designed "to get the hardness out of them." Reflecting on her years as a volunteer, she says, "It gives you so much satisfaction to know that through your efforts a difference can be made. Don't ever think that one person can't make a difference. It doesn't take money. Just give of yourself and people will help you help others."

The hard work of Society staff and volunteers has benefited South Carolina corrections in many ways. A former client recently wrote, "Your staff provided an atmosphere where I could restructure my life and put my priorities and goals back in order. Thanks to all of you for giving me the incentive and encouragement to get back on the right track and do something positive."

Surely this statement sums up the positive results that can be realized by a strong volunteer program.

Bill's Story

The Alston Wilkes Society, through the efforts of its dedicated staff and volunteers, has made a difference in the lives of a number of offenders. An interesting case in point is Bill, a former South Carolina inmate.

Bill has never known his father's name. An aunt once told him his mother used to go out with a man named "Hutchins" so he took that name as his own. A social security investigation placed his birth year in 1918, but he isn't sure of his real birth date.

Around age 15, Bill was imprisoned for rape. He served his time and was released, and he went on to join for Army during World War II. When he was released from active duty, Bill found himself without a family, a skill, or the basics for living outside of a prison or the wartime military. He purposely committed another crime and re-entered prison in 1948. There he was provided basic care and saved $3,000 he earned by washing staff cars. Life was secure.

In 1980, Warden Judy Anderson reviewed Bill's inmate record and found he had been granted parole 10 years earlier with the conditions that he secure a job and a place to live in the community prior to release. Unable to do either from his prison cell and having slipped through the social services cracks, Bill had spent 10 years in prison under paroled status.

Anderson contacted the Alston Wilkes Society. We arranged to have Bill released to a halfway house and to start an entry-level job as a dishwasher. Bill walked free for the first time in 32 years.

This was a new beginning for Bill. He did not have another incident of law breaking, and he did not bounce from job to job. In fact, he was so excited to have a job that he was never out sick and had to be forced to take annual leave.

However, Bill did have some new problems. He did not know how to live outside prison. For example, he had never slept alone. In the institution, with others around, he slept soundly. Now, alone in his room, he was terrified and woke up often.

One night Bill heard staff making routine rounds, but he didn't know who it was or what they were doing. He barricaded his door as the sounds came his way. Staff could not get in. Finally, they broke in, worried that something had happened to Bill. They found him huddled in a corner, like a frightened child.

Receiving his first paycheck was another intimidating experience for Bill. As he came home down the street, staff saw him zig-zagging across the road with a stick in his hand. He was not drunk or sick. He was afraid. he had never had that much money in his pocket and he was sure someone would try to take it from him.

Bill was not prepared for independent living. At age 61, with no family support, he found it fairly difficult to face living outside the halfway house. Although the average length of stay for most residents is four to six months, we offered Bill a permanent home in exchange for a small rent fee and help around the facility.

Though Bill is free to leave at any time and has thought of doing so, he always decides to stay. After 13 years, the Society has become Bill's family.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Alston Wilkes Society
Author:Walker, S. Anne
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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