Microvolunteering in Prisons – Can You Change the World From Prison?
At any given time there are over 80,000 inmates in prisons across England and Wales and one of the primary aims of a prison sentence is to help offenders to lead law abiding and useful lives both whilst they are in prison and after they are released. Encouraging prisoners to engage in microvolunteering could therefore be a practical way of helping them to achieve these goals.
The term microvolunteering refers to actions that can be completed in short periods of time of anything from 10 seconds up to 30 minutes to help out worthy causes. This ranges from signing a petition, sending a card, writing an article, completing a questionnaire, using graphic design skills to design a logo or webpage or even knitting a hat for a premature baby. Microvolunteering can be promoted both offline and online but this article will focus particularly on whether online microvolunteering opportunities can be made available to prisoners in England and Wales.
Voluntary Organisations Operating in a Prison Environment
In 2011, there were at least 245 voluntary and community sector organisations, social enterprises and charities involved in supporting the rehabilitation of offenders in prisons and there are currently many opportunities for prisoners to take part in voluntary activities within prison. Voluntary roles include Samaritan listeners, suicide prevention representatives, housing advisors, race representatives, reading mentors and peer mentors.
However, the Prison Reform Trust considers there is still considerable scope to develop more opportunities for offenders to take on personal responsibility through volunteering, peer support representation and prisoner councils. The question therefore is how does online microvolunteering fit into this vision?
Benefits and Promotion of Microvolunteering in Prisons
The potential benefits of microvolunteering for prisoners are enormous. Microvolunteering offers offenders a route through which to build self-esteem, confidence, a feeling of well-being, and a sense of empowerment. Additionally, there is the opportunity to build work-based skills such as time management, communication, teamwork and problem solving, all of which could enhance the offender’s employment prospects on leaving prison and possibly minimise the chance of the prisoner re-offending. Microvolunteering also has the advantage of opening up avenues that may otherwise be restricted to a prisoner. For example, the opportunities are often easy to access with no complicated recruitment process or initial training and there is usually no need for a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check.
It is suggested that microvolunteering could be promoted to prisons and prisoners in two ways: either as an opportunity to give back to the global community by participating in chosen activities or as an educational and work-based tool that will improve the prisoner’s chances of gaining employment on leaving prison. Sites such as HelpFromHome.org have already set up platforms aimed at people looking to increase their employability. For example, Help from Home has a Skills 4 You page that allows the volunteer to register to take part in a work skills programme. Once registered the volunteer can choose the skills they wish to build and be guided to the most appropriate actions. Volunteers can also register for a free ePortfolio account and webpage to build an online CV. Once registered on the Skills 4 You programme volunteers can then begin to build up microvolunteering actions to achieve personalised award badges to add to their ePortfolio giving a real sense of achievement.
Barriers to Microvolunteering in Prison
However, as advantageous as microvolunteering might be to prisoners willing to take part, there is an elephant in the room, microvolunteering requires access to a computer and controversially, prisoners would require access to the internet. This is dealt with by Prison Service Order (PSO) 9010:
“Prisoners must not be allowed uncontrolled access to the internet and/or to a computer that has software installed enabling internet connectivity to be achieved.”
Although this PSO does not strictly prohibit internet use by prisoners, it has been found that this is the way prisons have interpreted the Order particularly as a result of concerns about security, licensing, financial constraints and insufficient resources.
Those who are against giving prisoners access to the internet argue that it is too high a security risk, a luxury too far for prisoners and in view of recent cutbacks and ‘austerity’ a stretch on resources.
However, those who advocate the use of computers in prisons argue that giving certain prisoners fully supervised access to the internet could help their rehabilitation and cut re-offending rates. They also argue that it could boost training and help offenders keep in touch with family members. Furthermore, they point out that in the fast moving world of technological advances, expecting prisoners to leave prison without any form of IT experience is leaving them woefully unprepared for life back in society.
Breaking Down Those Barriers
Optimistically, there are avenues that could be explored that might enable prisoners to gain the access to the internet they require to seek out online microvolunteering opportunities. For example, many prisons have access to the Virtual Campus (VC), a secure intranet with the potential to support education, training, employment, resettlement and family ties and further investigation could be carried out into whether there is scope for this to be extended to microvolunteering opportunities.
A second avenue may be to focus on offenders in Category D open prisons who are given a greater degree of freedom. These offenders are often given Release on Temporary License to work in the community or to go on home leave and they may therefore have the ability to access microvolunteering opportunities in the community.
Finally, further investigation could be carried out into how microvolunteering could fit into the aims of Community Payback (previously known as Community Punishment and prior to this, Community Service). Courts have the power to sentence offenders of certain crimes to undertake from 40 to 300 hours of Community Payback. The aim of Community Payback is to force offenders to repay the community for the wrong they have done. Although the words ‘punishment’ and ‘force’ do not really fit in with the concept of volunteering, one of the purposes of Community Payback is to give back to a charity or charitable organisation and therefore there may be scope for microvolunteering here.
In summary, there is reason to be pessimistic about the possibility of prisoners accessing online microvolunteering opportunities but the cause is not lost. With a good deal of vision and tenacity, there are avenues that could be explored further such as expanding the uses of the Virtual Campus, harnessing the greater freedom of prisoners in open prisons and the possibility of using microvolunteering tasks as a form of Community Payback.
First published in June, 2015
Guest Author: Andrea Jackson
Time Well Spent: A practical guide to active citizenship and volunteering in prison
Through the Gateway: How computers can transform rehabilitation