Disrupting volunteer-led prison programs cuts a fundamental lifeline for everyone in the system

This column is an opinion by Murray Fallis, a Public Interest Articling Fellow with the John Howard Society of Canada where he advocates for the rights of prisoners. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Despite the fact that they’re needed now more than ever, prison volunteers are being dissuaded from engaging in Canada’s federal prisons — both remotely and in person — due to health measures around the pandemic. Their absence is exacerbating an already stressful situation and causing harm to prisoners, society, and correctional officers too.

Every prison has volunteers. These individuals span all walks of life, from reverends to former prisoners to teachers. Each plays a fundamental role in prison life and the safe re-integration of people into society.

Organizations abound, from the 7th Step Society that seeks to prevent future recidivism, to Book Clubs for Inmates (BCFI) that introduces prisoners to literature, developing social skills through books while addressing seminal literary themes such as good and evil, redemption and the courage to change. There is the Millhaven Lifers Liaison Group, which engages prisoners serving life sentences, and the St. Leonard’s Society that assists prisoners throughout their parole journey.

These volunteers are a fundamental lifeline for everyone in the prison system — an environment which is inherently tense, depressing, and downright scary for staff and prisoners alike.

Before the pandemic, our carceral system welcomed volunteers. For example, in 2019 Reverend Carol Finlay received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal for her work creating the BCFI program. Now, Finlay says she struggles to even get the prison gym made available for a socially distant meeting, or a private conference call to facilitate a discussion about redemption.

Carol Finlay is the founder and director of Book Clubs for Inmates, and an Anglican minister.

As institutions lock down, volunteers cannot enter prisons — a reasonable health measure during the height of a pandemic. However, no supplementary system for remote in-reach has been established, which is entirely unreasonable. No Zoom, no internet meetings, just a lack of connection between the outside and inside worlds.

The efforts of volunteers like Finlay are being hampered or lost altogether as their access to prisoners is reduced or cut off.

This needs to change, and it would be so easy to change through simple measures — a Zoom account, a private conference call, even an outdoor book club to allow people to interact while maintaining physical distancing.

Volunteers who bring so much goodwill, time and energy to rehabilitation efforts need to be reconnected with the populations they serve, and quickly.

Fundamentally, the loss of volunteers and the services they provide will have long-term impacts on the successful reintegration of prisoners into society. The disruption of anti-addictions programs, such as Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous, will affect their ability manage addiction and exacerbate risk factors for recidivism, for example.

These impacts will multiply — socially, economically, legally, and ethically — across groups ranging from prisoners and volunteers, to taxpayers and victims. Prisoners will be worse off while their programs are scaled back or cancelled, volunteer groups will be unable to deliver on their values and mandates, while all of society as taxpayers and victims will bear the elevated costs of recidivism.

A Correctional Service of Canada officer is seen at the Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont. Prison programs run by volunteers can help ease the load on correctional officers. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

The absence of volunteers also puts an added burden on correctional officers. Prisoners engaged in activities are often less stressed and more likely to comply with prison rules.

Many prisoners develop life skills through these programs, like learning how to fit in and function in society. For some with a traumatic past, these programs offer a first opportunity to learn the real meanings of good and evil behaviour, and how to make ethical judgments and decisions when they respond to life’s problems.

Others simply behave better within the prison community because they don’t want to risk losing cherished privileges such as book clubs, library time, and gym access.

Whatever the participant’s motivations, programs run by volunteers lighten the load on correctional officers who, even prior to COVID-19, served in an astoundingly challenging role.

It is in this context that more connection is needed between those inside and outside prison during the pandemic, whether remotely or in person. The prison system would benefit from a more creative approach to volunteer engagement, as well as actively reaching out to volunteers for their ideas on how to ensure ongoing involvement with federal prisoners.

As one volunteer noted, “We’re the ally, but we’re treated like the enemy.” We must quickly figure out how volunteers can stay connected with those serving prison sentences during this pandemic, and get everyone back on the same side.

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