Planning Volunteer Work at a Penal Institution

The following information is to help you get started in visiting those who are incarcerated.  First you will want to contact the Chaplain or the Program Director of the institution you wish to visit.  Try to be ready with a detailed plan, including how often you wish to come.  Is this a one-time visit or do you wish to make regular scheduled visits each week or month?  How much space and time do you need?  What do you plan to do?  What is your experience and background?  What will you need to bring with you such as art supplies, musical instruments, and a sound system?

The more information about what you wish to do and your requirements to do it, the easier it will be for the Chaplain or Programs Director to assess your program, and to obtain your clearance.  At the same time plan to be as flexible as you can, bearing in mind that space and time for programs if often very limited for those who are incarcerated.

If all goes well the next step is to enter as a guest into a penal institution.  You will find that this experience is to be as a pilgrim, to go as a stranger into a strange land.  When one is a stranger the first rule then, would be to learn the customs and laws of the place you are planning to visit.  We do this in order not to unwittingly offend, or cause a problem for our hosts.  When going into a penal institution for the first time ask your contact for a copy of the visitor regulations prior to your first visit.  You may also be able to find them on a Web site for the particular institution that you plan to visit.

Each place is unique; but the following general guidelines should go a long way toward helping to make your visit go smoothly. Failing to follow the rules of security for any institution may cause you to endanger others and at the very least you will irritate the staff.  So first and foremost go with the intent of being a thoughtful guest to all of those that you encounter along the way.

1. Travel light. Only take with you the bare essentials.  Leave everything else at home or locked in your car.  You will most likely need some form of picture ID but leave wallets, purses, money and jewelry outside.  Do not be surprised if you are made to wait.  Many things go on inside the institution, which may cause a delay in visiting be patient.  Expect to have your belongings searched.  Entering the institution will be very much like going through airport security.

2. Once you are on the inside never give anything of any kind to a prisoner without prior permission.  At the end of your visit check when leaving to make sure that you have left nothing behind.  People who are incarcerated are often depressed and may use the most innocent looking materials to harm themselves.

3. Find out what the dress code is for visitors.  The security staff will not want you wearing clothes that are similar to that of the prisoners.  Dress with modest care.  Do not draw attention to yourself by your clothing.

4. Always walk anywhere around the institution.  Avoid the temptation to quickly jog back to your car for something that you may have forgotten.  Seeing someone running can be confusing for the security staff.

5. Never give out any kind of personal information such as your address or phone number likewise do not ask personal questions of those on the inside.  Focus on the Spirit not yourself.

If we want to help those who are incarcerated to grow to wholeness we must be open to seeing and acknowledging the real ongoing active presence of the Divine already working within those we have come to serve.  So often in the past as a chaplain I have seen well meaning individuals come with the intent of helping, by earnestly presenting their image of the God to those they see as poor lost souls on the inside.  No acknowledgement was ever given to the possibility that those on the inside may be

already having holy experiences.  There was a feeling overtly offered which implied that the visitor was the authority on all spiritual matters.  This attitude rather then helping someone to move forward in his or her spiritual journey often did just the opposite. It often left the inmates feeling more isolated and uncertain about their own experience of the Divine then before. If on the other hand someone come simply as a friend open to offering to share together with those inside whatever experiences of grace that may arise from the visit, the event could often prove to be a blessing to all. I think it is important to remember, that which is truly Holy does not need an interpreter God speaks for God’s self. Our job then is simply to provide a holy space where God may be heard. We, both those on the inside and those of us who come from the outside grow when we come together simply to share in holy conversation and listen with open hearts to each other’s experiences of grace. This requires that all involved take on the responsibility of participation.

Finally, to you your visit may seem a very small thing. I want to assure you that it is not: the very fact that you cared enough to make the effort to visit will have a impact on those you saw for weeks to come and in some cases for a lifetime. May the Spirit bless your efforts.

-The Rev Peggy Thompson, retired jail chaplain