Helping an Inmate

How Does a Volunteer Actually Help an Inmate?

Each inmate is a unique individual. Although there is no definite pattern for helping, the following suggestions may be beneficial:

Be Responsible
Follow a schedule and keep appointments and promises to avoid adding to the inmates' confusion and giving them another feeling of rejection.  To help, you must be dependable for it is your duty to set an example which promotes responsibility in the inmate. Respect the inmate - unless you respect the inmates, they will not open up to you and may resist your desire to help. Volunteers must consider the inmates' individuality, basic rights as a human being, and show them the dignity that all people deserve.

Listen and Understand the Problem
Until you have figured out the pressures on the inmates, their needs, interests, capabilities and limitations from their point of view, you will be unable to help.

Guard Against Over-Identification
As a volunteer, it is your job to find a common basis where you can relate in a friendly way. The inmate's problems may be unique; you cannot carry the burden of them yourself.  You do not have to join the inmates on their level in order to relate.  To feel with the inmate gives them strength.  To feel like them makes them feel that you are in the same position as they are.

Ask for Help
If you are uncertain about what to do or say, it is always best to tell the inmate that you will have to seek other advice. They do not expect you to have all the answers. Discuss the problem with the volunteer coordinator or another experienced one-to-one volunteer. A volunteer in a correctional facility does not have an easy task. Many inmates, for various reasons, have built invisible walls around themselves that are higher than any prison walls.

Take it Easy
Relationships are not built overnight. The inmate will probably be more uneasy about you than you are about him or her. Don't try to map out the whole volunteer process at the first meeting. You may be the first person who has ever offered friendship to the inmate. Therefore, the inmate may be afraid to accept your friendship for fear of disappointment or they may be more concerned about what your "angle" is.

Ask inmates questions
Ask about things they know about...What is prison like?...How do they occupy their time?...Be careful not to probe, because they may not be ready to tell you about their crime or other guilt associated matters, they will tell you in their own time. Ideally, let them talk, but if they want to learn about you first, answer their questions honestly and sincerely.

Accept the Inmate
Even though your values may be different from those of the inmate, you should accept them as individuals without condemning or condoning their behavior. To accept an inmate is to have a genuine interest. Your goal is to help the inmates to help themselves. If you take seriously the belief in self-determination, you will help the inmates arrive at their own decisions rather than attempting to mold them as you see fit.  But you should make a clear distinction between evaluation and judgment. Assume a nonjudgmental attitude between you and your inmate friend so that you will be able to give them the acceptance they need and want.

Basic Communication Skills

Listening and Hearing
Allow the person to talk. It is important to the inmate to be listened to and be heard. They may have never had anyone who would hear them out. Their values may shock you but listen without judging or condoning.

It is important that the volunteer be able to empathize with the inmate. But empathy should not extend to the point of sympathy.

Let the Inmate Get to Know You
You should serve as a good role model, setting an example in terms of behavior. Be supportive, encouraging, friendly but also firm. Whatever the role or obligations of the volunteer, respect and friendship will be far more beneficial if the inmate knows that you will be firm, honest and objective in disapproving certain behavior where warranted.

Showing Respect
You should not overlook the fact that for inmates, respect is something they have perhaps never experienced and with which they are not familiar. It is important that you respect inmates and they learn to respect you.

Then, after this relationship has developed, you may have an influence on their lives. You must deal with present and future rather than past.

Advising the Inmate

For advice to be most helpful and meaningful, certain guidelines should be followed:

Did they ask for it? Can they take action without it? Can they use the advice you are giving? Can you accept responsibility for the advice you give?

Building Self-esteem
One can easily trap oneself into thinking that "because inmates are failures, they will continue to be failures." If you show this in your attitude, the inmates may pick up this feeling and act out these expectations. The reverse is true. If you show inmates they can be a success, they are likely to pick up some of the positive feelings.

Using Appropriate Language
You should avoid adopting the inmate's vocabulary. To use language that is not natural for you may make you seem phony. At the same time, you should not leave the impression of being naive. Use language understandable to inmates. Do not use words that are beyond their comprehension. BE YOURSELF.

Although it may seem tempting to offer an immediate solution to problems and/or questions of inmates, they may not understand the solution. In accepting a solution foreign to them, they may never really identify with it.


« this page last modified 08/15/12 »