November 12, 2014

Study examines prison volunteers’ characteristics, outlooks

Lisa Kort-Butler

As prison populations and costs swell, volunteers are becoming increasingly important for providing programming and rehabilitation to inmates. But little uniformity exists in how prisons recruit, train and maintain relationships with them.

It was with this in mind that UNL sociologist Lisa Kort-Butler set out to study the characteristics and expectations of prison volunteers, along with their interactions with prison staff and inmates.

“If we’re going to rely on (volunteers), we ought to be able to make that experience as positive as we can for both the inmates and the volunteers and correctional staff,” Kort-Butler, associate professor of sociology, said.

Her findings, which were published recently in the Journal of Crime and Justice, were that prison volunteers share selfless character traits and most felt they were called to volunteer – some because of their religious beliefs and others because of personal histories. A handful volunteered in religion-based programs; more commonly, volunteers were involved in programs targeting life skills and job skills. She also found that the volunteers felt their experience of volunteering has reshaped their feelings on both prison reform and the inmates themselves.

“The volunteers were always aware that these were people that had committed crimes, but the language that a lot of the volunteers seemed to use was separating those crimes from the individual,” Kort-Butler said. “These were not bad people, but they were people who had made mistakes and bad choices.”

The study found that prison volunteers have realistic expectations but also see their work as important.

“I don’t think any of them had the sense that they were going to change people, that they were going to change the system,” she said. “They see themselves as planting seeds of hope or seeds of change so that later on, inmates may blossom into something else. All of them had that notion.”

Kort-Butler said the qualitative study, which consisted of interviews with prison volunteers, also illuminated how they could share their knowledge with policy makers and correctional staff. She said that because of their constant work with inmates, volunteers have a unique perspective in how current criminal justice system policies could be reformed to better serve inmates and society in general. Many study participants believe mass incarceration policies should be changed and would like to see more resources dedicated to re-entry of prisoners.

“This work allows them to really see where there are impediments (in the system),” she said. “We all want people to be released and not to commit more crime and for the volunteers, they said, ‘Yes, we want that, too, and we’re here and we’re volunteering to make that happen, but then people are released and we don’t know what’s going to happen to them because the support services aren’t there.’ ”

Kort-Butler said the study was a starting point to learn more about what drives prison volunteers and how to help retain more volunteers to work within the criminal justice system.

“If we want them to be successful, if we want them to be impactful, if we want them to continue their involvement, then it helps to get to know what it means to be a volunteer. So far, with the very few studies that are out there, we’re piecing that together,” she said. “It makes sense that we would want to do what we can, if we’re relying on volunteers, to make the whole operation successful.”

The study was co-authored by UNL graduate student Sarah Malone and can be found here.