Volunteers Change Inmates’ Lives—Even During COVID

Thousands of Canadians volunteer their time, energy, and passion with the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to help offenders become law-abiding citizens. Their work inside CSC’s institutions and in the community is one of the many supports that help offenders rehabilitate and safely transition from incarceration to reintegration.


“Volunteers provide an outside source of support and help inmates to understand what’s going on in society,” said Shelby Nerbas, Acting Social Programs Officer at Mountain Institution in Agassiz, British Columbia. “They talk about current events, so the offenders can keep up to date, which is really important because it’s a shock to them when they get out. Things change so quickly.”


Across Canada, people volunteer with various inmate groups in correctional institutions in their community.  Volunteers offer literacy assistance to offenders who want to improve their reading, writing, and numeracy skills. Most of the institutions hold Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, led by a volunteer who comes in and conducts the meeting. As well, members from various faith organizations volunteer to take minimum-security offenders to religious services in the community.


“Volunteers are one of our most important resources within CSC. They are huge,” said Pennie Young, Volunteer Coordinator at Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, which has 300 volunteers.


During the pandemic, CSC has had to limit visits from the public in order to protect the health and safety of staff and offenders. While this has meant that some in-person volunteer activities at institutions or in the community have been put on hold, CSC’s volunteers, staff, and community partners have found innovative ways to stay in touch with offenders virtually by telephone and mail.


In the Pacific Region, the volunteer-run Upper Fraser Valley AA Corrections Committee collaborated with staff from Fraser Valley and Mountain institutions to coordinate AA through a new pen pal program, so inmates could continue to receive guidance on tackling alcohol and substance abuse. The program connects AA members in institutions with AA members in the community through mail. For AA members in the community, it is a rewarding opportunity to contribute, even if from a distance. 


In early 2020, the Metropolitan Montreal District launched a unique volunteer-run telephone-based support program for its parolees. The project was started for offenders who were isolated because of COVID-19, feeling anxious or those identified by their case management teams. As word spread of its success, the Greater Ontario and Nunavut District adapted it, creating the new Volunteer Mentor Program.


In February 2021, Millhaven Institution implemented the program in their Structured Intervention Unit (SIU). Employees at Millhaven set up a schedule in the evenings and weekends when offenders could connect with volunteers from a semi-private room equipped with a phone. This gives inmates in the SIU an opportunity to engage in meaningful human contact with a volunteer from the student-run group, Queen’s Correctional Services Volunteers. The program continues to attract interest from other institutions and expand across the country.


Kyra McGovern, co-president of the Queens Correctional Service Volunteers shared what she enjoys most about being a CSC volunteer. “I have learned that volunteering is not about me. I could spend all day talking about the benefits volunteering has given me, but it is more important to focus on how volunteering benefits the offenders. Taking part in volunteer programs encourages offenders to believe that they are capable of change. It provides them with the opportunity to develop their pro-social skills by way of interacting with people from the community.”


One night a month, volunteer Len Bachiu and eight other men used to drive the hour and a half from Saskatoon to Prince Albert for a two-hour visit with inmates they are paired up with. “It has been a long time since we’ve been able to go. I’ve missed spending time with him,” said Len. “I’m looking forward to being able to connect with him at the penitentiary in the future.”


Between 75 and 80 volunteers at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, like Len, are part of Person-2-Person (P2P). Some P2P volunteers have met with and gotten to know an offender for several years, and each considers the other a friend. With COVID, the volunteers have had to find alternative ways to stay connected. Often they speak to them by phone.


“A lot of these volunteers write a letter and send one stamp so the inmate can write a letter back. That way they can still communicate. A lot of offenders don’t have money, so don’t have the money for stamps to be writing to extra people,” said Pennie. “This allows them to keep in touch with their P2P person. And you can tell how much it means to them that the volunteer is still talking to them.”


For many inmates, having a citizen in the community to talk to and encourage them has helped change their life. Pennie explained that many volunteers at Saskatchewan Penitentiary have businesses and take on some of the inmates to teach them employable skills, such as construction and renovations. 


“It’s very rewarding, seeing how guys can succeed when they get out of here,” said Pennie who, in 12 years as Volunteer Coordinator and 22 years working with P2P, has seen many offenders go on to become contributing members of society. And the volunteers? – “They love it. It’s just the fact they know they are helping to change a life…. that they make a difference just by being someone to talk to.”


CSC values its partnerships with volunteers that mobilize people and resources to achieve key priorities, such as safer reintegration. Interested in joining the thousands of volunteers who are making a difference, supporting offenders, and contributing to the safety of communities across Canada? Please visit our volunteer page on the CSC website. 

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