Where’s the Help?
The Recruiting and Nurturing of Volunteers
The Need for Help: The Story in One State
About 25 years ago, as I remember it, things were a lot quieter in most prison chapels. In those days the chaplain sat in the chapel office most of the day doing one-on-one counseling with offenders, and waiting for someone to come in with an emergency. Prison administrators expected their chaplains to deliver messages in the event of offender family member death. They also were charged to be the one to notify the next of kin when an offender died in the prison.
Until recent years prisons were fairly closed societies. Even though the public owned them, and paid for them, the public was not very welcome in them. Religious volunteers were not too numerous and not too visible. To be sure, a few worship services were held, but chapel services for the purpose of helping offenders in their personal, interpersonal and spiritual growth and development were uncommon. The prisons were filled with violence and infested with gangs. There was not much hope among the offender population. Rehabilitative and reentry programs were not much in our thinking.
Help On the Way
All of that began to change in earnest in the 1990s. I remember our Chairman of the Board of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Carol Vance, at that time, who came to speak to all of the chaplains at an annual training event. We were in the midst of the great prison building boom of the ‘90s, and the prison population was exploding—from 35,000 in 1985 to, eventually, 155,000. Texas Prison facilities in that period increased from 30 to 112.
Mr. Vance, himself a man of faith, talked with us. He indicated that we were in deep trouble. He said that our prison officers were neither trained nor commissioned to help the offenders in our care. Officers can give some guidance and discipline, he said, but they were there to keep the offenders inside the fences. He indicated that more than good security is needed, because 95% of our offenders will one day return to society, our neighborhoods. What are we doing to help them be better citizens than when they came into our facilities? The answer at that time? Not much.
Mr. Vance gave us an exaggerated statement to make a point: He said—in a paraphrase—we don’t need your little study group in prison to help us—we need your whole house of worship there to help us with the great task of giving offenders a new perspective on life, of showing them a new way of living, and of nurturing them in that new, moral, positive path.
Thus began a tremendous new emphasis—now 20+ years old—to bring faith-based rehabilitative and reentry programming into the prisons through the Chaplaincy Department. A system of policy and procedures was set in place to recruit, screen, train, supervise and retrain quality volunteers of all faith groups, and enter them into a prison volunteer database. As a result today there are over 21,000 approved, on-the-computer volunteers—of whom about 90% are religious volunteers of all faith groups—in the Texas prisons.
Results of the Help
There are several outcomes which have coincided with the great increase in numbers of volunteers.
Think about it. In a prison of 2,500 with one chaplain, what can one chaplain do? One chaplain can do as much as one person can do—not a whole lot without help. But one chaplain, with the help of Certified Volunteer Chaplain Assistants, can recruit scores of other volunteers to help on a monthly basis to do the program leadership, provide a multi-faith array of worship services in a pluralistic environment, do needed counseling of offenders, and minister to correctional staff, all of which is needed in any prison.
Faith-based life skills and life management rehabilitative programming, mentoring, transitional reentry programming, spiritual growth programming, victims services programming, and worship services for multiple faith groups take up most of every day in the typical chapel. No longer is the chaplain sitting in an office waiting for someone to knock on the door. Staff chaplains are commissioned and supported by the legislature, the Board of Criminal Justice and by our agency executive leadership to set up programs, announce their availability, and sign up offenders who volunteer to participate. Offenders are hungry, open and receptive to the new initiatives. When offenders are released, state-supplied parole chaplains take over the task, with thousands of additional volunteers, helping ex-offenders transition successfully from inside to outside.
The results have been nothing less than astounding. The recidivism rate 20 years ago—returning to prison after three years out—was 76%. Today—coinciding with the new culture of doing what we can with massive new numbers of volunteers to help offenders grow spiritually and interpersonally—the recidivism rate after three years out has dropped to 22%. All of this has happened at a time when the population in the state is increasing by about 2,000 a day, but the prison population seems to have peaked and is on the decline. Texas has closed three of its prisons in the past two years.
What should we think of volunteers? Religious volunteers—properly recruited, screened, trained, supervised and retrained—are a most valuable asset in a prison. Is a volunteer ever exited for violation of policy? Yes. But we do not throw out the baby with the bath. The program continues, and does great good.Where do these religious volunteers come from? They come from our houses of worship as individuals feel a compassionate call to help guide so many who may not have had the blessings of effective parenting and good moral and social development. They are encouraged to step out in faith from their comfort zone, they are trained and welcomed by prison administrators, and they feel great fulfillment in making our society a safer place when offenders become ex-offenders who are moral, productive and upright citizens.