“This is how I am a Christian,” says Heather Driedger of her work with Parkland Restorative Justice. As executive director of the non-profit organization, Driedger provides programs for inmates at the Prince Albert penitentiary.
Supported by Mennonite Church Saskatchewan, Parkland offers three restorative programs:
- Person to Person (P2P) matches volunteers with inmates for monthly visits.
- Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) helps sexual offenders reintegrate into society after serving their sentences.
- Dad HERO (Helping Everyone Realize Opportunities) teaches parenting skills to incarcerated fathers.
These programs reduce inmates’ loneliness and isolation, and enable them to reintegrate into community life after they’ve served their sentences. But the programs rely heavily on volunteer commitment.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have had good core groups that have been volunteering for over 20 years,” says Driedger. “They’re now retiring because they’re old.”
Younger volunteers who are still in the work force are not available as consistently as their older counterparts once were. They may volunteer for six months and then step down as work and family commitments make their lives too busy. Those around retirement age may only be available for a few months of the year because they go away for the winter months.
This makes it hard for inmates to get to know volunteers and build relationships with them. “Building trust happens over time when people can count on each other to be there,” says Driedger.
It’s hard to know why people’s commitment levels and availability have declined in recent years. Perhaps increasing affluence has allowed people more choices as to what they do with their time.
Driedger notes that many volunteers used to travel to Prince Albert for their monthly visits along with their church groups. Inherent in carpooling was a certain level of accountability. Volunteers would go because others depended on them for rides.
On the ride home these volunteers would have a chance to talk about their visits and compare notes with one another.
“Visiting someone in prison is a difficult thing to do,” says Driedger. “The debrief on the car ride home was just as important as the [visit] in terms of thinking about these relationships.”
Those who volunteer as individuals don’t have the support that comes from travelling with a group. They may get tired of making the monthly drive alone, or they may be paired with an inmate who really challenges them and they find they have no one to talk to about it.
“The group dynamic is vital to keeping people engaged,” says Driedger.
She tries to be as flexible as possible when it comes to accommodating volunteers’ busy schedules. P2P visits take place on Monday nights, but some volunteers aren’t available on Mondays, so she matches them with inmates in minimum security, where they can visit whenever they like as long as the inmate is available. This means that fewer inmates in medium security are receiving visits, but, with this adaptation, Driedger has doubled the number of minimum-security inmates receiving visits.
Since she knows the importance of volunteering in groups, Driedger looks for new recruits in the networks of her volunteers, asking them whom they might know who would be interested in joining them.
She also tries to give volunteers what they’re looking for. “If we can modify the experience at all for them, we try to do that,” she says. When a volunteer wanted to tutor in the area of literacy, Driedger set up a placement where she could tutor once a week in the minimum security school.
“You have to really pay attention to your ‘matchmaking,’” she says. This means listening to what both volunteers and inmates are asking for in a relationship. Inmates who want help overcoming addictions may find a good match with volunteers with a background in Alcoholics Anonymous.
The inmates served by Parkland’s programs inspire Driedger and her volunteers. “I always cry when I talk about them,” she says. “We all talk about how much we learn from them. We receive more than we give sometimes.”
Driedger sees the inmates as resilient “These people have experienced so much in their lives,” she says. “It’s hard to think of being in their spot and the hope that they [express].” She knows that volunteers play an important part in bringing hope to these men.
“For me and for a lot of our volunteers,” says Driedger, “the challenge of going to that difficult place and hearing that difficult story and being able to walk with people—this is how we live out of the stories and teachings of Jesus.”
Volunteer Jim Wiebe, left, visited with Eugene from 1996 to 2011. Eugene continues to see Jim since his release. He says, ‘It was good to be in P2P. It helped open my eyes to my surroundings and who I was. By watching and learning from my visitor, I realized life is more fun if you can control your urges.’ (Photo courtesy of Heather Driedger)