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Volunteers make a big difference inside a maximum security prison.

At the maximum security State Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pa., volunteers play an important role in helping inmates--particularly those on death row or with life sentences--cope with the stress of incarceration.

As the prison's superintendent, I am continually impressed by the dedication volunteers bring to their work. The stories of Brigitte Cooke, Jane Crosby, and Fred and Ruth Rupert show the passion behind many volunteers' involvement in corrections.

Brigitte Cooke is a feisty 72-year-old who comes every month to visit inmates on death row. It takes her more than two hours to drive from her home to the institution--an indication of her deep commitment.

I had been superintendent for only two months when Brigitte requested her first meeting with me. I was not prepared for her directness and enthusiasm as she spelled out what she believed needed to be changed to improve the quality of life for the men on death row. She stated clearly that she did not want to hear and would not trust bureaucratic double-talk--she was concerned with results.

After nearly three years of staking out our territories and responsibilities, Brigitte and I have become good friends and we respect each other's roles. We now understand we are both here for similar reasons--we care and we want to have a positive effect on inmates' lives.

Brigitte once explained to me that her motivation for volunteering in prison is the memory of her father and brother, who died in a German concentration camp during the Holocaust. She said she would never be comfortable unless she did all she could to reduce the hardships in people's lives.

Week after week, Jane Crosby slowly maneuvers herself to the front gate with the use of a cane. She waits patiently as an officer processes other visitors on their way to see loved ones. As the visitors move through the gate and the metal detector, she empathizes with their impatience but understands the need to check each person thoroughly.

Jane, who has been a regular volunteer for the past 12 years, has worked with more than 500 lifers. She works closely with them to provide guidance, support and compassion. In response, group members trust that she will evaluate their concerns and determine whose complaints should be brought to my attention. Jane is motivated by a strong religious responsibility to reach out and help those in need.

One of our most dedicated volunteers, Fred Rupert, died at the age of 79 four years ago. He was a retired auto mechanic who lived in a nearby town. Fred volunteered for 13 years with the local chapter of Yokefellows, a national religious organization. He also volunteered for 20 years at the local county detention facility.

Fred's caring, commitment and willingness to give of himself had such a profound impact on inmates that they still talk about him appreciatively. His wife, Ruth, shared his prison volunteer commitment, and she has continued to work with inmates. We talked about Fred in a recent conversation. Ruth said, "The Lord impressed upon him the importance of working with people who were locked up, not valued and perceived as unlovable."

A Dedicated Group

According to findings of a recent survey of corrections volunteers in Pennsylvania, religious and spiritual beliefs are the paramount motivation for their involvement. All major religious faiths encourage service to humanity. The Bible, the Torah and the Koran encourage followers to serve others. Other important motivating factors include humanitarian reasons, the privilege of working with inmates and faith in the potential for rehabilitation.

Virtually every day, volunteers actively participate in the operation of SCI-Huntingdon. While the largest number work in religious programs, others serve as tutors in the education department or participate in recreational activities--usually as members of a community athletic group playing in friendly competition with inmates. Other volunteers serve as members of the prison's Citizen Advisory Committee, another valuable link with the community.

Prison volunteers generally are committed, faithful, dedicated and hard-working individuals who volunteer because of a belief that they make a difference. They also realize how much they grow and benefit from their work with inmates. I recognize that without the volunteer efforts of these men and women, many of our programs would suffer or would not exist.

Brigitte, Jane and Ruth are just three of the more than 200 volunteers at Huntingdon. More than 1,800 volunteers serve in the 15 state prisons in Pennsylvania. The value of their service is impossible to measure.

Joseph D. Lehman, Pennsylvania's corrections commissioner, acknowledged the importance of volunteers when he told them at the annual awards ceremony, "You make the prison environment more humane. And, through volunteering, you have become partners in the management of the prison. Volunteers serve as role models for staff and inmates alike, and represent hope for inmates who will be returning to the community."

As corrections administrators, it is important that we recognize and support the work of volunteers in our programs. This requires us to maintain an awareness and appreciation of the specific roles volunteers perform in our institutions. We need to support staff efforts to recruit, train and supervise volunteers and to encourage appropriate expansion of volunteer activities. And it is imperative that we take an active part in recognizing the vital work volunteers perform in correctional services.

Bill Love is superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, one of three maximum security facilities in Pennsylvania. An active volunteer, he serves on the board of the International Association of Justice Volunteers.
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Author:Love, Bill
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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