What I learned volunteering in prison for 6 months

I live in Portland, Oregon. Portlandia. I love it. But it feels sheltered, unreal.

Six months ago I decided I needed to get out of my bubble. I needed to experience something different. Very different. I needed to challenge myself and my self-created (and very nice!) comfort zone.

I have been learning and practicing Non-violent Communication (NVC) for 6 years or so. There is an active NVC community that teaches in prisons, and I signed up to teach as part of the Oregon Prison Project.

A group of around ten of us meet at Oregon State Penitentiary (Oregon’s only maximum-security prison) to teach in four different classrooms of about 10-20 inmates each.

Eight things that are not like the movies

  1. Inmates treat volunteers better than anyone else. Volunteers are practically untouchable. And the inmates are grateful and respectful that you are even there to begin with. What they overwhelmingly experience is that society has forgotten they exist. Many believe that is what they deserve. They often don’t understand why someone would volunteer to come to a place like a prison to help someone like them. But they are grateful we are there.
  2. It did not matter that I have zero “street cred”. You do not have to prove yourself or “earn respect”. I am as white as they come, and I spend my days working on the computer, reading self-help books, blogging, going to Pilates, and quilting. I have experienced nothing like the lives most of these men have led. But I am there to help, and I have something to teach, and they want to learn.
  3. Nobody claimed they were innocent. Overwhelmingly the men I worked with felt regret at how they had hurt their victims, the community, and that they had let their families down by making poor choices, doing drugs, and getting into the situations that led to their crime.
  4. There is an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to control inmate behavior. At the top is “A” block, where inmates have keys to their own cells and can come and go as they please unless there is a lockdown. At the bottom is “the hole”—solitary. Inmates get sent to solitary as a punishment for breaking the rules or being caught with contraband—not necessarily having anything to do with violence.
  5. Most of the men work full-time. In prison you don’t have a lot of options. Many work at the laundry, which does laundry for the prison and all the nearby hospitals and institutions. Others work doing telemarketing (I have no idea what this is about and it sounds kind of scammy). They get paid pennies a day, because their “room and board” comes out of their pay.
  6. There was a lot more laughter, friendship, and camaraderie than I expected. A lot of the men in our class were there because their friends told them they had to take it. They look out for each other. They laugh and joke. They live there 24/7, they can’t be all like “we’re in prison” all the time.
  7. The biggest pain they feel is that their families and society have forgotten about them. I hear over and over, “My family wrote me off when I went to prison”, “None of my letters are returned”, “My son hasn’t spoken to me in 30 years”. Ostracism is the worst thing humans can endure, and prison often means permanent loss of family and friends.
  8. Rehabilitation does not consist of helping people realize they did something bad. They usually already know that. It consists of helping them learn better ways of coping with their life, better decision making, impulse control, anger management, interpersonal skills—basically, missing or under-developed life skills. People do not end up in prison because they are “bad”. They end up in prison because they did not grow up fully or well. They are wounded or neglected kids in grown-up bodies with grown-up toys (i.e. guns and drugs). They need education and good modeling, not punishment.

A typical day

Here is what I do every Wednesday:

  1. 3:45 pm. Make sure I meet the dress code: no jeans, nothing dark blue, modest clothing (high neckline, no tight clothing or short skirts), and a non-underwire bra.
  2. 4 pm. Meet the carpool to drive to Salem.
  3. 5 pm. Check in with the officers in the waiting area, and lock up my keys, phone, wallet - everything but my driver’s license. Wait until an officer is ready to escort us up to the Education floor.
  4. 5:30 pm. Go through a series of gates and security measures. Pass through the extremely sensitive metal detector (it goes off on my hair clips). Pass the first gate into the check-in room. Hand over my driver’s license and get a badge, and an invisible-ink stamp on my hand. Write my name and purpose in the log. Line up and wait for the gate to open. Walk to the next gate. Wait. Walk to the next gate. Show my badge, say my name. Go through the final gate and walk up the stairs to the classroom.
  5. 5:45 pm. Most of the class materials are already there, so they don’t have to get checked for contraband each time we come. Tape the charts up on the wall. Pull the chairs out into a circle. Wait as the guys trickle in as they are released from their various cell blocks.
  6. 6:30 pm. Teach the class.
  7. 8 pm. An officer calls “Pill Line” and 1/3 of the class leaves to get their medication.
  8. 8:15 pm. Class ends. Put everything away.
  9. 8:20 pm. Go downstairs. Line up. Show my badge, say my name. Walk through the first gate, the second, and the third. Hand over my badge and show my hand so they can shine a special flashlight on my hand and see the stamp. Get my driver’s license back. Sign out. Walk through the last gate. Back to the waiting room to retrieve my keys and wallet from the locker.
  10. 8:30 pm. Drive home.

Life, Arrested

Several of the men in our class are in their thirties, but were arrested when they were barely 18. They’ve completed their growing-up years in prison.

But prison doesn’t help them grow up. They are fed, clothed, and told what to do nearly every moment. They have hardly any real responsibility unless they choose to work at one of the few job options available to them. Even there, they are not doing anything that someone else couldn’t do the very next day if they were sent to solitary for some reason.

One man, who is 32 but looks 25, said in our group that he has never had a checking account, never had an apartment, never owned a car, never went out dancing. He expressed intense regret that he had spent his entire 20's in prison, and most of that in solitary.

He said that to get through solitary, you have to get into a zone where all your days are the same. Like a trance, you knuckle down to do your time. But that means all the days blend together, and you don’t remember any of them. He said, “I flushed my 20's down the toilet”.

His biggest fear is that he’ll die in prison, and that it will be like he never existed at all.

Now he’s taking classes, doing Toastmasters, and working, preparing for his release in 5 years, when, at 38, he’ll get to begin his life.

Let’s talk about this

Why are a huge percentage of TV shows about crime and the justice system, but hardly anyone has actually visited a real prison?

Having seen more of what prisons are than most people like me (white, middle-class, professional, educated) ever do, I feel a responsibility to share.

It’s not so much that it’s so different than what you’d expect. It’s that we have an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to prisons, and the people inside them. And I get it. I did too.

I understand why: we’re afraid. They’ve hurt people. But how we handle this as a society creates a lot more hurt.

When children are abused and neglected, we care. We feel bad. We want to help them. We send in social workers. We pass laws to protect them. We create non-profits and task forces.

But when these same children grow up and act out of their pain, confusion, and lack of modeling and parenting, we lock them up and forget about them. We shame them and judge them and punish them. We take them away from their kids, their families, and anything that would help them keep their dignity or humanity.

And we hardly talk about it. There is a stigma on the subject itself. We think of them as not like us. “Criminals”. But they are just people, like us. People who had shitty lives and didn’t deal with it all that well. But still people.

Things are changing

Knowledge of the nature and effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is increasing. We are learning more about how the brain works, how childhood trauma affects development and creating effective treatments.

You can help. Don’t support laws like mandatory minimum sentencing that don’t allow discretion for individual circumstances or provide parole incentives for self-development and responsible behavior. Let’s stop being “tough on crime” and be smart instead.

I didn’t do anything especially epic by signing up to volunteer. It’s only worth writing about because hardly anyone ever does it.

Don’t forget prisons exist. Don’t stigmatize it. Don’t set people up in your head as “criminals” and so different than you that they don’t deserve to be part of society. Read about ACEs and the effects of early childhood trauma. Visit a prison or volunteer or donate to organizations helping with rehabilitation.

Addendum: How to Volunteer in Prison

Since I wrote this article, I have had a number of people track me down on Twitter or FB and ask me how to get started volunteering in prison.

Prisons are run by the state you are in (except federal prison), so your first step should be to Google [your state] DOC volunteer. DOC stands for Department of Corrections — that’s usually what it’s called, although it could be called something different in your state. For example, in California it is “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation” or CDCR. You can also try [your state] prison volunteer.

There should be a state-side volunteer coordinator who can help you find a program to volunteer with. The program I was in is local to Oregon and you had to already have experience with NVC. Every state and prison has different programs that go into that prison and they all have different requirements, so I can’t give you much more specific info than where to start researching.

There are a lot of religious programs (Christian mostly, but also others like Buddhists), and there are AA/NA type programs. Quakers/Friends do a lot of work in prisons and I think they are generally open to non-members. If you are in college, Inside Out may be an option at your school. Some prisons, like San Quentin, have a plethora of programs, and some prisons have none, especially if they are in the middle of nowhere. So if you are in an urban area, you are more likely to have options.

I also came across Houses of Healing, which is a book and a program that was designed to allow anyone to start and facilitate their own volunteer group in prison. I haven’t looked into it that much, but the book was good. While we are on books, I also recommend We’re All Doing Time.

I often get asked if I ever felt “unsafe” and honestly the only thing that felt unsafe was walking by the guard tower and seeing a guy with a gun staring down at you. Inside, I was in a classroom and it felt like a classroom.

To inmates, going to classes is a break from the monotony and tension of their daily life. Interacting with outsiders who treat them like human beings and not animals is like a little taste of freedom. It’s quiet and calm, unlike the tier which is full of screaming people and clanging metal doors. They value being able to be in that environment, maybe even more than what you are teaching. It is also a privilege that has to be earned with good behavior and can be taken away at any time. In other words, the have no incentive whatsoever to be anything but respectful, and they always were.

And respect goes both ways. Volunteering in prison can turn into a bit of an ego trip, where you feel like you’re being a good person and rescuing lost souls. This objectifies people and feeds into the power imbalance inherent between free people and imprisoned people. Stay humble, stay curious, and recognize that prisoners are complex people just like you, you family, and your friends. Listen as much as you talk. Stay grounded in your common humanity, be respectful, and remember that you have no idea what it’s like to wake up in a locked cage every morning for years on end. Assume you know as little about their life as they know about yours.

A final caveat: the downside of volunteering from a social justice perspective is that it keeps the emphasis on fixing the individual which ignores the need to fix society. People are in prison ostensibly because they failed society, but in many cases, society failed them, early and often. A history of severe trauma is common, and many children grow up in homes where violence and crime are normalized. Most prisoners were victims long before they were offenders. They are being treated like trash every day, which is completely unnecessary (other countries manage to treat their prisoners like people). Prison has a long, racist history of convict leasing, a form of nationalized slavery that wasn’t abolished until 1945. Our current prison system and structural racism are inseparable.

Volunteering is commendable and helps people on a personal level, but it’s not solving the structural problems that foster poverty, trauma, and crime, nor is it transforming prison itself. To that end, I encourage you to learn more about the prison abolition movement and restorative justice.



Being the light means touching the darkness.

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Emma Love Arbogast

Emma Love Arbogast

Being the light means touching the darkness.