Volunteer FAQ

1. What is the Howard League?

The NZ Howard League is a charitable organisation that has existed since the 1920s and is one of a number of organisations throughout the world named after the English prison reformer John Howard, who died in the early 1800s. Our goals can be summed up as making our communities safer by reducing the number of people in prisons, and the rate of reoffending. We want to ensuring that our prison system genuinely helps offenders to rehabilitate and create a viable life without crime. We believe this is not just the job of the professionals, but that the community has an essential role in making this happen.

2. What sort of volunteer programmes does the Howard League provide in prisons?

Our volunteers provide a range of educational, life-skills and vocational programmes, such as low-level literacy, driver education, ESOL, critical thinking skills and budgeting. In fact, we’re always looking for new ways to involve volunteers from the community in constructively helping prisoners prepare for parole and create a better life from themselves, including making amends for their actions.

3. What sort of skills and experience does the Howard League need?

Most important is an ability to communicate, a genuine interest in people and an ability to develop an effective working relationship with those you are helping. Yes, we’re looking for people with experience in areas such as adult literacy, group facilitation and teaching work and life skills. But we need people who are naturally supportive, empathetic and encouraging, and also motivating and positive, to help prisoners stay with a programme of learning even when the going gets tough.

4. How will my safety be guaranteed?

Prisons are actually one of the safer places to be, as they have staff on duty responsible for security and lots of CCTV cameras. That said, volunteers have to be aware of safety rules and make sure they follow them. There are risks, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to address them.

5. Are there any requirements in terms of age, gender, ability or fitness?

We don’t discriminate on the basis of age or disability (or any other grounds), but there are some practical things to take into account.

  • Some men’s prison environments are not suitable for female volunteers, and some aspects of women’s prisons aren’t suitable for male volunteers.
  • While youth is not a barrier, we don’t recommend prison as a place to start your volunteering career. We have many fantastic young volunteers, but they’ve often had some relevant experience somewhere outside of prisons – in youth work or counselling, for example.
  • Most prison facilities are quite accessible, but reasonable fitness is required, as there is likely to be a fair amount of walking around, standing and sometimes climbing stairs. There are often incidents within prisons which require us to stop what we’re doing and quickly make our way to the exits.

We’re happy to talk through any mobility or other assistance requirements, but bear in mind that prison staff have limited ability to make special provision for volunteers.

6. How big is the time commitment?

Generally we’re looking for a commitment of around 2 ½ hours per week, plus travel time. Some prisons are close to cities, but many are outside of main population areas and require driving for half an hour or more.

There’s plenty of scope to take breaks in your volunteering, and work around your other personal and work commitments; but it is best if you can commit to being available on a regular basis, say, one morning or afternoon per week.

Also bear in mind that it can take a few weeks to get security clearances and attend health and safety inductions.

7. What times of the week or of the day do volunteer programmes operate in prison?

Each prison has its own daily schedule. However, most prison volunteering occurs on weekdays and during either a morning (9.30-11.30am) or afternoon (2.00-4.30pm) time slot when prisoners are out of their cells. As present there are some prisons who can schedule volunteer visits in weekends, but evenings are not generally possible as prisoners are usually in their cells from dinner time onwards.

8. Can I work with prisoners via Zoom?

Not at the moment. But hopefully in future.

9. What resources will I need to bring with me? And what resources are provided?

Each type of volunteer programme has its own resource requirements, and these are mostly provided by the Howard League or by the prison itself. With our low-level literacy programme, however, we do encourage volunteers to hunt for additional resources (such as magazine articles or books on subjects that are of interest to the prisoner) so as to keep their engagement with the student fresh and relevant.

10. What training and support will I get?

Prisons provide regular training related to security procedures and how to stay safe. The Howard League provides basic training on how to use literacy materials, plus periodic specialised training on issues such as working with dyslexia. We also have experienced volunteers who are on call to assist with answering questions or troubleshooting. We are a small organisation, however, and we rely on volunteers taking the initiative to fill gaps in their knowledge.

11. Is there money to pay for travel and other expenses?

Yes. This is provided to volunteers directly by the prisons and usually takes the form of a petrol voucher.

Please note that support for travel costs is limited. After 6 weeks of volunteering, you are entitled to one $150 petrol voucher a year. In most cases this comes directly from the prison.

12. Is it a problem if I have a criminal record? Or if I have a friend or family member who’s in prison?

A past criminal record or a close personal link with someone currently (or recently) in prison is not an automatic disqualification for volunteer work in prisons, but it needs to be looked at on a case by case basis. What’s important is that where such links exist they are identified and given due consideration to ensure everyone involved is kept safe. Transparency is always the best policy.

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