Taconic warden finds volunteers have much to offer women inmates.
Women's Prison Association
The Women's Prison Association (WPA), a volunteer group based in the city, works with Taconic inmates, offenders at several community residential centers in New York and released offenders. (About 90 percent of Taconic inmates are from the New York City area.) WPA provides the following services:
Transitional services. These services include group workshops, individual counseling, pre-release planning, intensive assistance for women with HIV and AIDS, links to a network of social service and health care providers, and help finding jobs and housing.
Sara Powell Huntington House. This is a refurbished building in Manhattan for previously incarcerated, homeless women, including women with HIV or AIDS. The house, which has 28 units, offers women an opportunity to reunite with children scattered to foster care and with relatives. WPA provides child care, recreational and education activities, counseling and case management.
Mercy College volunteers are registered nurses who meet regularly with women inmates at Taconic to discuss health issues such as infectious diseases, nutrition and the availability of health care and clinical services.
ACE-Out. WPA provides technical assistance to ACE-Out, a peer support and education network for offenders who are HIV-positive. ACE-Out holds support group meetings twice each month at Taconic.
WPA provides these services to the New York State Correctional System at no cost. Along with offenders, corrections department staff benefit from the volunteer group's efforts.
"Clearly, we would be unable to remain informed about all these services," a counselor who works at Taconic said recently. "It is essential that the volunteers keep us abreast of what is occurring in the community, and how we can best make our clients aware of these services."
Mercy College Volunteers
Often volunteers can offer inmates expertise that is not available through prison staff. An example of this is a community nursing program provided by nearby Mercy College.
The Mercy College volunteers are registered nurses seeking advanced degrees in nursing or hospital administration. They meet regularly with women inmates at Taconic to discuss health issues such as infectious diseases, nutrition and the availability of health care and clinical services.
"I was really impressed with the Mercy College nurses," one inmate said. "When I was home, I never thought about how eating well was important to whether I felt well or not. The nurses helped me focus on what my needs are, what the needs of my children are, and how important this is to the good feelings in my family."
The Decisionmakers volunteer program is an example of how the expertise of retired professional and business leaders can benefit a facility. These volunteers talk to inmates about techniques they can use to better manage their lives. Decisionmaker volunteers include a semi-retired psychologist, a retired international business executive and a retired school administrator.
"Making decisions in your life should be a structured program much like a college or university curriculum," one Decisionmaker volunteer said. "I and the other volunteers who conduct this program have been using this structure for many years--in our professional lives and in our personal lives--and I can assure you that it works.
"In the many years we have been doing this program, I have never met an inmate who previously used or understood the formal character of decisionmaking. And when they see how the program works, it changes their lives--forever."
The presence of volunteers in correctional programs sends a message to inmates that the community cares about them. An example of this is the use of volunteer aides in Taconic's Child Care Center and Nursery. Women from the community assist paid staff and inmate volunteers at the 23-bed center for infants born to incarcerated women.
"It's very encouraging to have people come in from the outside," one inmate said. "It makes me feel that somebody cares and that there is hope for us when we get out."
One volunteer said that until she began volunteering in the Taconic nursery she never realized the impact incarceration has on inmates' children. "At first, I was moved almost to tears when I saw these tiny, beautiful babies in prison," she said. "But I feel strongly that I am making a difference. I am showing both the mothers and the babies that I care and that others care. You could hire somebody to do this, but it would not be the same."
Ex-offenders as Volunteers
Some of Taconic's volunteers are ex-offenders. These individuals are able to provide positive role models to inmates, who can identify with their attitude of "If I could do it, so can you."
Two programs that provide weekly volunteer services to Taconic and in New York City--the Incarcerated Mothers Program and Steps to End Family Violence--use former offenders. One woman who works with the Incarcerated Mothers Program in the city served more than eight years in prison for killing a former boyfriend.
"I have had to deal with violence, being battered, and the pain and suffering that comes with violent reaction and, sadly, the death of another," she said. "When I talk to these women, they listen because they know that I have been through the grinder and can understand how they feel."
One of the most important areas of volunteer service in the prison system is the religious volunteer program. Religious volunteers make up the largest segment of the volunteer community at Taconic Correctional Facility.
"An important aspect of substance abuse counseling is the recognition of the |higher power' concept," said one of the senior counselors for a program called Comprehensive Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment. "Until substance abusers put their spiritual house in order, they are going to have a tough time coming to grips with their addiction."
Ex-offenders provide positive role models to inmates, who can identify with their attitude of "If I could do it, so can you."
"I guess you could have called me a lost soul when I was killing myself on the street," one woman inmate said. "In prison I found God and I found myself. I thank God for the inspiration I get from the people from the street who come to us every week. I don't know what we would do without them."
Religious volunteers may find their work in prison a powerful experience. "Nowhere in this world would you find such a concentration of spiritual need than in the prisons," one Catholic volunteer said. "It's very sobering for me. It makes you understand what a slippery slope we all live on. It brings home to you how close the front gate of the prison is to the front gate of your home."
A Symbol of Hope
Citizens who become volunteers in corrections are a symbol of society's increased willingness to recognize that offenders need assistance from the community. This type of cooperation between the public, private and voluntary sectors promotes change in corrections, dispels myths and creates new, meaningful programs and services.
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|Title Annotation:||New York|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1993|
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