Volunteering at your local charity food bank, buying yourself a coffee, and paying for two so one can be suspended for someone who needs it, or sponsoring a child in a developing country are all popular examples of giving back to the community, but what about an idea that centres around giving back and upskilling at the same time?
The Tennessee Department of Correction launched a Braille Transcription Program at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in March 2019. In a partnership between occupational and life skills training provider TRICOR and the Tennessee School for the Blind, the department’s Braille Transcription Program upskilled offenders and benefitted the community.
Participants learned braille and were trained to transcribe printed educational material into braille for students at the Tennessee School for the Blind. Not only did program participants have meaningful work while serving their sentence and learn an employable skill for when they left the Riverbend facility, but they also helped visually impaired students enjoy the same books their peers were reading.
The 18 participants who completed the program in May 2021 received a Braille Transcription Certification from the National Library of Congress. In addition, two participants were awarded the National Braille Association Braille Textbook Formatting Certification.
Dr. Kathy Segers from the Tennessee School for the Blind congratulated each participant on their achievement.
“Every time that you all do a book for students in the state of Tennessee, my heart just welts up with pride,” Dr. Segers said.
“Because of this program, visually-impaired students in Tennessee are getting their books on time. Kids have their books at the same time as their sighted peers.”
Tennessee Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker considers this a win-win-win situation.
“Giving people a national certification that they can carry when they leave one of our facilities and go back into the community and not return – that’s effective re-entry, that’s effective rehabilitation in our prisons,” he said.
In Australia, the Red Cross’s Community-Based Health and First Aid program trains, prisoners, to become Special Status Red Cross volunteers within their facility.
Since the program was piloted in 2018 at St Heliers Correctional Centre in NSW, participants have learned skills and built confidence and self-worth in readiness for re-entering the community. It has since been rolled out to three more facilities: Townsville Women’s Correctional Centre, QLD; Acacia Prison, WA; and Adelaide Women’s Prison, SA.
Special Status Red Cross volunteers, prison staff, and Red Cross facilitators collaborate to develop and implement projects that meet the needs of their prison community. Such projects include bullying awareness and drug and alcohol harm minimisation campaigns; collection and creation of Christmas gifts, prison violence reduction workshops, and clean-up crews to improve hygiene.
In evaluating the Community Based Health and First Aid program, Red Cross found, “Becoming a certified volunteer offers participants an important boost to their social capital and is likely to enhance their prospects of finding a pro-social role beyond prison”. The program clearly made a positive difference at the pilot stage and Red Cross said it would look to discuss future directions with partners and other stakeholders.
These examples are just two programs working to equip prisoners with skills to use beyond their custodial sentences and help the community at the same time.