Why do prisons need volunteers?

"One of the keys to reducing re-offending is helping people live crime-free after they have served their sentence or order," according to the Department of Corrections' Approach to Reintegration brochure.

At the Northland Regional Corrections Facility (NRCF — Ngāwhā) prisoners and staff depend on a core of volunteers to help enable this approach.

With a certain amount of trepidation I recently visited the prison to observe a volunteer working with a prisoner to improve his literacy skills. I needn't have worried. Personal security is definitely not an issue. Security staff are efficient and friendly, and Porsha Anderson, regional volunteer co-ordinator at NRCF, immediately instills confidence with her professional and engaging manner.

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However, I was only there for one morning, and was free to leave at any time. For many of those serving a sentence, life could not be more different. Imagine, too, not being able to complete a job application, or even write a simple letter. Then throw in a hearing or sight disability (or both), a communication difficulty and few social skills.

In fact, more than half of New Zealand's prison population is functionally illiterate.

Facing these challenges, along with a prison record, must make living an offence-free life incredibly difficult. That's where people like you come in.

What does volunteering in prison involve? By volunteering a chosen amount of your time, in your chosen activity, you can help contribute to the success of prisoners' reintegration into society. There is no need for volunteers to be qualified teachers; communication skills, integrity and the ability to engage in a non-judgmental way with the men are vital to foster a trusting environment conducive to learning. Some of the programmes, though, may require previous experience.

Literacy and numeracy programmes set up by the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform (a charitable organisation) are in great demand. Other current activities range from music, meditation and arts to increasing confidence by learning public speaking (go to www.volunteeringnorthland.nz and search for 'corrections' for the full list.

Porsha is always exploring new activities that meet the criteria of supporting the men's education, training and rehabilitation. For example, in partnership with Bay of Islands Animal Rescue, a dog fostering scheme is soon to be introduced.

One volunteerThe volunteer I met, Avril, is tutoring one student on a Howard League literacy course. The Howard League supplies all the resources Avril and her student need, including reading books and a writing programme. In this instance, the charity also helpfully provided a special magnifying sheet to support the student's visual impairment.

Avril volunteers for one hour a week with a prisoner who has been carefully assessed to participate in the programme. A lot of their time is spent in conversation, which has really improved the student's communication skills, and the hour passes quickly. They use the Howard League workbooks and follow a 12-week programme.

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Avril has worked with this particular student for a while now, and they have built up a trusting relationship. Prisoners are matched with volunteers by NRCF case managers, who endeavour to take into consideration prisoners' preferences for gender and age, alongside any cultural requirements.

After volunteers undergo police vetting, Porsha runs a thorough orientation for newbies, including a site tour and a visit to where they will be working. Ensuring the safety and security of volunteers is paramount.

Avril says there is "nothing threatening" about her visits, and security staff are visible, but not intrusive.

Procedures for visitors entering the meeting rooms seem similar to airport security, but with extra door activations.

What do volunteers get out of it? Supporting prisoners to turn their lives around is a rewarding experience.

As a bonus, Avril's student has been teaching her New Zealand sign language. She also feels a great sense of achievement on behalf of her student as his speaking and writing skills improve.

"We want prisoners to have an education so they can be successful, and there is often no way forward unless people give just a little bit of their time," she says, adding that Porsha organises monthly appreciation lunches for all the volunteers, which are great for a catch-up and get-together.

How do the offenders feel about working with volunteers? Avril's student tells me he looks forward to his literacy class.

"It is interesting, and I am learning," he says.

He is now able to write a letter to the Parole Board, and also to his mother. His sense of pride shines through when he talks about his art work being displayed in the Kaikohe Courthouse, and he shows me a song he has written for his music group.

Volunteers have given him opportunities to learn, and without his newly acquired skills, reintegration back into his community on his release would be daunting and challenging, he adds.

The NRCF would love to welcome more volunteers who can offer tutoring in a range of skills to the prisoners.

The Howard League's literacy scheme is especially looking for more volunteers. Having met Avril's student, and experienced his enthusiasm, I know that any time donated would be extremely worthwhile and highly valued.

At present the music group is looking for someone to lead them. All you need is a musical background and the ability to maintain the equipment.

Is this you?

If you'd like to know more about volunteering at the NRCF, visit www.volunteeringnorthland.nz, call 0800 865-268, or email info@volunteeringnorthland.nz

■Diana Smith is a volunteer reporter at Volunteering Northland.