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On the Inside: The Tradition of Volunteers in Prisons

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Volunteers from the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Public Prisons began visiting incarcerated people in 1787. Over the next 117 years, the organization continued its efforts to improve prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners. Today the same organization continues its work as the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

In 1895, Warden J.W. French, the first Warden at the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, realized that Federal prisoners needed an incentive to foster positive behavior. He and Chaplain F.J. Leavitt pioneered the idea of inviting people from the community to assist their institution, especially in providing literacy courses and religious services.

While much of society turns its back on convicted offenders, volunteering in prisons has always been a calling for others, both in the US and elsewhere. This article looks at how community activists, religious evangelicals, and compassionate idealists made – and still make – an impact on prison life.