Venturing outside of the Queen’s environment to volunteer allows students to contribute to community upkeep and growth, particularly as we move from the educational realm into the broader landscape of adulthood and civic responsibility.
This is especially important regarding the incarcerated demographic, who are often cast aside. Understanding and supporting the functionality of the criminal justice system is essential to its continued improvement, something that’s particularly relevant in Kingston.
For nearly two centuries, the City of Kingston has been associated with criminal incarceration, earning it the moniker “Prison Capital of Canada.”
With nine operational correctional facilities with varying security levels in the Kingston region, a large population of criminal offenders resides within our community, underscoring the pressing demand for rehabilitative initiatives. The collective stated capacities of these facilities is just over 2,500. With approximately 14,500 individuals incarcerated nationwide, Kingston can house roughly up to 17.2 per cent of Canada’s prison population.
Of several necessary rehabilitative measures, one crucial need for the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals is engagement with volunteers.
Founded in 2019, Queens Correctional Service Volunteers (QCSV) is a student-run organization that collaborates with Kingston prisons to provide much-needed support for inmates. QCSV was created with the purpose of advocating for the equitable rehabilitation and reform of Canadian offenders, assisting with preparing individuals for a safe, gradual, and structured return to society.
To achieve this mandate, the club offers support to inmates through educational workshops, organizing events in the institutions, and talking one-on-one with offenders. Volunteering in a prison can be incredibly daunting.
In my first year, I worried I’d regret working with QCSV because I felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of providing support for offenders. QCSV eased my fears by its extensive training process.
All QCSV volunteers are given extensive training prior to entering any prisons, and are provided education on the realities of the incarcerated experience. Volunteers receive security clearance through the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) prior to engaging in volunteer work.
Once inside prisons, volunteers are typically met with smiling faces from offenders who are excited to see them.
Stigma about incarcerated individuals engenders a general fear of inmates, often based on unnecessary prejudice and misinformation. Portrayed by the media as dangerous and violent, these negative portrayals reinforce the idea that inmates are immediate and dangerous threats. This directly harms the lives of offenders and their families—even once released from prison.
While crime is a public concern, overemphasis on the so-called danger of the offenders diminishes their humanity and leads to unnecessary fear and polarization within communities.
In my own experience working with inmates, I’ve never felt uncomfortable or unsafe. Inmates welcome all volunteers’ efforts and friendly, genuine interaction.
Incarcerated offenders are among some of the most marginalized people in society, and empathy and understanding are things they rarely receive. Showing kindness to offenders is a simple gesture that acknowledges their humanity, allowing offenders to remain hopeful about the future while seeking both personal and professional development during their time incarcerated.
Most inmates simply want companionship while incarcerated, and conversations usually revolve around surface-level topics like favourite foods, pop culture, and the weather. Incarceration isolates offenders from society, and connection with volunteers on sometimes trivial topics brings inmates a sense of comfort and normality.
Offenders are more likely to be interested in interacting with volunteers than correctional staff, as volunteers aren’t involved in their day-to-day lives in the same way. By engaging with people not directly involved in their policing and surveillance, offenders feel more at ease in building connections.
Volunteering in prisons also helps meet government goals in reforming prisons.
Implemented in 2019, Structured Intervention Unit regime (SIU) was established by legislation aiming to decrease the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons. The legislation stipulates offenders removed from the general prison population are legally required to receive two hours of meaningful human contact every day, and offered a minimum of four hours out of their cells every day.
CSC employees are stretched thin and can’t always accommodate every offender. Staff may encounter challenges in guaranteeing the fulfillment of these daily necessities for all inmates, particularly in the face of inmate conflicts and the ever-shifting population under their care.
QCSV’s phone call program in partnership with the SIU allows offenders to receive the allotted two hours of daily meaningful contact, while providing them with a record of good behaviour. A well-documented record can help inmates demonstrate their commitment to rehabilitation and personal accountability, which can have a positive impact on their incarceration status.
By alleviating some of the stressCSC employees endure, QCSV helps ensure offenders receive adequate support. Without QCSV, there’s minimal volunteer interest for these facilities, making QCSV’s continued presence crucial. Meaningful human contact is something that’s essential to the maintenance of physical and mental health, and a right inmates shouldn’t be denied.
In addition to providing companionship to inmates, QCSV volunteers provide educational and skill-building workshops that help inmates acquire new knowledge or practical skills that can be valuable upon reintegration into society. Some of these workshops include financial literacy, mindfulness, resume building, and writing skills.
The offenders come to lessons engaged and excited to bring knowledge they can contribute to the group. Offenders help to build upon the workshops QCSV creates, allowing sessions to better suit the needs and interests of everyone involved.
This reciprocity in learning is powerful for both the offenders and workshop givers. After spending hours in class or in the library, it’s refreshing to hear non-academic perspectives and learn lessons from those with different backgrounds.
These workshops are a great experiential learning opportunity for students interested in pursuing careers in the criminal justice system or education. Offenders often provide volunteers with candid information about their experiences inside the criminal justice system, which helps QCSV members better understand how to build stronger relationship between students, inmates, and the Kingston community.
During the holiday season, QCSV makes dedicated efforts to offer comfort and support to offenders—many of whom are placed far from their families during this time. Offenders are often moved to different facilities across Canada throughout the duration of their sentences—most offenders QCSV works with aren’t actually from Kingston.
The benefits of volunteering with QCSV and in Kingston correctional institutions are endless. This isn’t to say this type of work is easy, nor that trepidation isn’t a valid response.
Through my involvement with the club, I’ve directly observed the profound impact of correctional volunteering in altering prejudices about criminal offenders and positively transforming the lives of both offenders and volunteers. As students, we often take for granted the support we receive from the surrounding Kingston community and don’t do our part in giving back.
Getting to work with the QCSV team allows me to collaborate with like-minded individuals who share a passion for community engagement and rehabilitation initiatives.
It’s essential for students to get involved with their community. It will lead to an amazing journey of learning, both about the world and one’s own identity.
Tatum is a fourth-year Con-Ed student.
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