Setting up a Volunteer Centre in a prison

Volunteer Centres understand local communities. We’re well-connected to local public services and are experts in volunteering good practice. We can make a difference to a wide range of specific groups or social problems, from social prescribing, health mentoring, employer-supported volunteering to young people’s employability.

At Volunteer Centre Leeds we have been bringing our services to serving prisoners and people with convictions in the community for over 18 months now, with less than 1% of our members reoffending, compared to a local average of 78%. We work in four very different prisons in Yorkshire, and have learned a lot about how to create effective partnerships. The most common feedback we hear is that volunteering has been ‘completely life changing’.

Looking back on Volunteer Centre Leeds’ pilot, funded by the Nesta Innovation in Giving Fund,  we’ve put together simple steps for Volunteer Centres new to working in criminal justice.

How to provide amazing opportunities to people with convictions and help them to move forward in their life

1. Tap into your existing networks

Your Volunteer Centre will already have a great range of opportunities, approach organisations and invite them to get involved, offering opportunities with a broad range of locations, areas of interest and activities.

2. Know your stuff

Create a steering group for your work of local experts, volunteer managers in organisations experienced at working with people with criminal convictions, colleagues from local probations, prisons and police. We have 80 organisations in our Giving Time network, including national experts in prisoner volunteering, Sue Ryder.

Create clear guidance for volunteer managers, and for volunteers, ensuring everyone has the same guidance and information. National organisations like Unlock, the Howard League, Nacro and DBS can help you set up procedures, risk assessments and guidelines.

3. Get your local prison on board

Creating a partnership with your local prison, probation service or youth offending service is crucial.

Many of these institutions are already juggling huge numbers of relationships with multiple agencies, and it takes time in particular to build a good relationship and pilot your project in a prison. Meet with the head of resettlement or business engagement manager, and show the experience of your steering group and the strength of your local networks. Use statistics and case studies you can find to prove the impact of volunteering on reoffending rates.

4. Setting up in the prison

Once your project has been agreed, you’ll need to go through prison security vetting, training, and establish your service. Be patient and proactive. Use colleagues from other agencies to help you push your induction process along. Prisons are understaffed and constantly have changing regimes and staff roles. In one prison we work in, we’ve had five  governors in two years. Each time you lose a contact, you must start again a fresh.

In another prison, when security vetting was taking up to six months to organise, colleagues in partnership agencies Shelter, Together Women Project and National Careers Service used their influence to push our security meeting up the agenda in the prison, as they knew volunteering could help their clients, helping them to meet targets.

5. Be flexible

The criminal justice system is undergoing huge change – it’s important to establish your project as part of the range of resettlement offers, working flexibly with other services.

In one of our prisons regime change means the structure of the Volunteer Centre service has had to change three times in a year. You need to be innovative and find new ways to adapt and run the service. Remember the prison has allowed you to have access, and join the team, creating more risk for the officers to manage as they are responsible for your safety as you work.

6. Show your impact

Create case studies and collect quotes, telling the stories of your volunteers. When a person leaves prison, staff there will never get to hear how that person has been getting on in their new life, if they’ve been volunteering, got a job, or had a family. Prison staff appreciate the good news and the way it reflects on their establishment.

Be careful to follow the institution’s publicity policy. Often, it may not be possible to use the name of the prison, or you may have to anonymise your data.

7. Be part of the team

Make sure you take as much training as you can after you have been given your keys, and make good links with colleagues from other agencies. At HMP Leeds, our staff work as part of a large Reducing Reoffending Pathways team, including housing charities, Job Centre Plus, Careers services, nurses and police. Your colleagues will refer volunteers to you and help you promote the service, and they may work with you to recruit their own volunteers, like the Restorative Justice practitioners at HMP Leeds.

8. Remember, every prison is different

Men, women and children have very different experiences of custody, and every institution is different.

At HMPYOI Wetherby, the children in custody often are highly vulnerable, with complex needs. They are also in a heavy programme of education, and we needed to fit our service around classes, and connect volunteering opportunities to relevant subjects by working closely with their teachers.

Where we are now

At least six Volunteer Centres have created their own models in criminal justice all over the UK, and they all followed the same steps to succeed.

At our recent event to celebrate five years funding from the National Lottery Reaching Communities Fund, one of our members, a volunteer for St Giles Trust told us

 “I’d rather be giving time than serving time, its powerful stuff! Every prison should have a scheme like this.”

We hope that one day, with your help, every prison will.

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