Prisons rebound from COVID-19 pandemic with the return of volunteers

Posted at 9:17 PM, Jun 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-15 12:31:38-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Someday when we can truly look back on the pandemic, the cost of COVID will mean different things for all of us. For inmates, it has meant a further disconnect from others.

Volunteer programming and visitation were canceled for 14 months at facilities within the Tennessee Department of Correction. Prison officials say those services are necessary and they are glad to see them returning.

TDOC Commissioner, Tony Parker told Newschannel5’s Carrie Sharp, “I knew it was going to be a heavy lift. And I knew that we’d have to work extra hard and be very vigilant to stay as safe as we could. But also to be mindful that as soon as the opportunity presented itself, to start looking at how we were going to bring back those services to the facilities. They're critical, they are, they're critical to the mission of the department, and also I would say, they're critical to healthy communities in our state.”

One of those programs is called Thistle on the Inside. Hallie Wiedner, is a social worker with Thistle Farms. She visits the Debra Johnson Rehabilitative Center three nights a week.

The women she meets with are guaranteed a spot in the Thistle Farms residential program, if they are granted parole. The group work done inside the prison, is meant to pave the way for a smoother transition back into the real world. She says investing in these women now, benefits all of us.

“A very common statistic is that 95% of people who go into prison – come out. So they’re going to be in your community, they’re going to be your neighbors, they are going to be your colleague at work. So in that time, wouldn’t you rather them be getting rehabilitative services?”

Katie is one of the women in the Thistle Farms program. She's been in and out of the prison system since she was 13 years old.

“I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had a program like this 15 years ago – what could have been different?” she told Carrie.

Her next chance at parole comes later this year and she hopes this program is part of her journey to a new way of life.

“I’m so excited and it’s so empowering. I have something to look forward to, it gives you hope. It takes away the fear of walking out the door.”

The department relies on 6,000 volunteers to provide rehabilitative, spiritual, and educational services. Commissioner Parker says TDOC could use twice that number.

“People think about the 20 to 30,000 people we have incarcerated in a correctional facility. Let's talk about the 70,000 that are under correctional supervision in our communities across the state. There is a great need for volunteer services with the probation and parole division of the department of correction. We have six day reporting centers across the state. That also has a Community Resource Center attached to each one. And within that Community Resource Center there's opportunities for educational volunteer work for mentorship programs for reconnecting people with jobs through resume writing. There are a lot of opportunities there and we really are trying very hard to reach out to these communities to get the involvement.”