Volunteering in prisons: a systematic review and narrative synthesis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Individuals from the community who volunteer within prisons are an understudied population, despite previous research indicating the increase in involvement of the penal voluntary sector and benefits to both prisons and prisoners from effective implementation of volunteer programmes.

OBJECTIVES: This study aimed to identify the characteristics, motivations and experiences of individuals who volunteer in prisons.

STUDY DESIGN: This was a systematic review conducted according to Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses guidelines.

METHODS: Peer-reviewed publications were identified through searchers of five electronic databases (MEDLINE, PsycINFO, Scopus, Applied Social Sciences Index & Abstracts and Social Sciences Database) without date restrictions, supplemented by hand searching and reference checking of retrieved articles. Explicit inclusion and exclusion criteria determined study eligibility. Study quality was appraised using standard tools. A narrative synthesis was conducted, and motivations were organised according to the Volunteer Function Inventory.

RESULTS: Eight studies (five qualitative and three quantitative) reported a total of 764 volunteers across five countries. More than half of the included studies investigated individuals providing primarily religious volunteer support; volunteers in these studies were typically middle aged, White and female. Prison volunteers frequently described motivations related to altruistic or humanitarian values, as well as social reasons. Positive experiences of volunteering were related to personal benefits to volunteers. Negative experiences were related to a lack of support and challenges in volunteers' relationships with prison staff.

CONCLUSIONS: Prison volunteer programmes have the ability to improve the psychological health of prisoners and provide a range of potential benefits to penal systems and volunteers themselves, but research on individuals who volunteer in prisons is limited. Difficulties in the volunteer role could be mitigated by developing formal induction and training packages, promoting closer integration with paid prison staff and providing ongoing supervision. Interventions to improve the volunteer experience should be developed and evaluated.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)155-164
Number of pages10
JournalPublic Health
Early online date14 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • Middle Aged
  • Humans
  • Female
  • Prisons
  • Prisoners
  • Volunteers/psychology
  • Motivation
  • Narration


Dive into the research topics of 'Volunteering in prisons: a systematic review and narrative synthesis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this