By Pat Gunn
One year ago, Christina Fialho of CIVIC visited us up in Seattle and helped put together a volunteer visitation program at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. This is the story of our journey in one year.
About 18 months ago, several Unitarians in the Pacific Northwest got together to discuss immigration, issues around immigration, and the detention center located in Tacoma, Washington. We had different points of view and different levels of involvement with detained persons. A Unitarian Universalist (UU) who had visited a person detained for 19 months suggested a volunteer visitation program at the detention center could be a worthwhile social justice goal for our interests.
This seemed like a simple task. People in detention want to be visited and people want to visit detained persons. All we would do would be provide a structure to match these two groups of people. So, guided by Paulo Freire’s belief that “you make the road by walking,” we began our volunteer visitation program development journey. We needed maps, and so we began to ask people about the detention center. Like ruined columns on the Aegean coast, we found remnants of old visitation programs, a document here and there, a person who had visited detained persons.
Several things became clear. We had virtually no access to detained persons. We had no structure for volunteer recruitment, retainment or training. We had no way to ensure the sustainability of our program, even if we did build it.
On our journey, we found the Northwest Detention Center Roundtable, a non-profit umbrella of agencies, interfaith, and community-based organizations interested in conditions at the detention center. They were looking to build a volunteer visitation program, and we were hoping to build it.
Our volunteer visitation program quickly became ensconced in the Roundtable. We are glad to be part of the Roundtable, for many reasons. Building a sustainable volunteer visitation program is not easy, and as a part of the Roundtable, we are able to work with a great group of people here locally.
We have had great growth, sending in 22 volunteers, and providing training to over 40 through the help of CIVIC and the Roundtable. We have been able to get a phone line installed in the detention center so that detained persons can request visitation. With this direct referral system, we are beginning to match volunteer visitors with detained persons who have been in detention quite awhile, in one case 31 months.
The phone line provides a steady influx of referrals, while retaining confidentiality of the persons requesting a visit. It ensures, unlike past visitation program attempts, volunteer visitors will be matched with a detained person.
So, one landmark on our journey to a sustainable program has been constructed. We have many more landmarks to construct. We must build a volunteer support system that honors the individual journeys of our volunteer visitors and reflects their knowledge and experience. We need to capture the expertise of our mentors so that new mentors have a pathway to guiding volunteers. We need to create a website that reflects the vibrancy of the volunteer visitation program, and we need funding to hire a part-time volunteer coordinator. We need to continue the educational process about what confidentiality is for detained persons and how to honor that as we advocate for detained persons.
So, we are making our road. We look forward to meeting other Volunteer Visitation Program Builders at the CIVIC conference this spring, and with bonhomie, we look to sharing the road!
Pat Gunn is a former ESL teacher who taught at the King County Correctional Facility for eight years. She is a member of CIVIC and a leader of the visitation movement.