When Janie M. Velasquez, Director of Volunteer Services, and Leon Bawcom, Executive Director of the Center, conceived the idea of developing an “Inmate Volunteer Program” utilizing minimum security female prisoners housed at the Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas, they saw many possibilities for the agency and the inmates that would also benefit the clients. However, since such a project did not exist anywhere in the United States, careful planning along with detailed responses to potential problems arising from having the inmates outside their secured facility had to be in place before the program could be presented to the prison officials. Velasquez and the staff at the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority (MHMRA) of Brazos Valley did their homework, and in May 1990, the first six inmates arrived to begin work at MHMRA.
The one-of-a-kind Inmate Volunteer Program is a Vocational Training Program, providing vocational rehabilitation for inmates in a work environment at virtually no cost to the taxpayer. The Inmate Volunteer Program has yielded the following benefits for the inmates:
- An opportunity for utilization of existing skills, and to gain additional ones at no cost to the taxpayer
- A high degree of motivation
- An eagerness and willingness to learn
- Interaction with society while in a work environment and therefore changing the misconception concerning inmates
- An opportunity to be productive members of the community
- Experience proves beneficial when seeking employment after release
This program benefits MHMRA with a group of skilled, full-time volunteers, whose presence for extended periods of time is virtually assured, which alleviates a key issue with most volunteer programs – securing and keeping good volunteers. The program also results in tremendous cost savings for the community, in excess of $300,000 per year.
For the past 10 years, a total of 295 full-time volunteers have contributed 355,752 hours amounting to more than $3 million in budgetary savings. These substantial savings to the community and state allow the agency to provide additional services to its clients without incurring additional costs. The inmate volunteers work alongside full-time paid staff, creating a “win-win” situation for all concerned.
The volunteers from the Bryan Federal Prison Camp serve in a variety of MHMRA programs and work together for the common purpose of giving of themselves to someone in need. They assist with typing, transcribing, accounting, filing, data input, telephone crisis hotlines, switchboard operation, publication and design, producing circulars, taking inventory, and directing clients to their appointments.
In the past 10 years, participation has increased from six original volunteers to as many as 38 volunteers at a time. Goals for the future include continuing to expand and explore further possibilities for the program.