The Politics of Helping: Understanding Practice in the Penal Voluntary Sector

“…much of the insensibility and hardness of the world is due to the lack of imagination which prevents a realization of the experiences of other people […] if we grow contemptuous of our fellows, and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people […] we not only tremendously circumscribe our range of life, but limit the scope of our ethics”

- Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (1902: 7)


I did not begin my PhD with the intention of studying the penal voluntary sector (PVS). But, in the midst of planning another dissertation project, I became increasingly captivated by/critical of my own experiences as a volunteer working in this sector. I was troubled by how the helping “interventions” of (some) volunteers and voluntary organizations were discursively framed. I observed that volunteers were often positioned as “pro-social” role models for service users to emulate. As someone with little experiential understanding of the kinds of challenges criminalized individuals navigate regularly, I was uneasy about inhabiting this characterization as an exemplar. I was resistant to impose my perspective of a “good life” onto individuals for whom these notions may not make sense, or perhaps weren’t even desirable. And yet, however problematically, I still wanted to help.


I began to question the rhetoric of rehabilitation and intervention that pervaded much of the work I observed being undertaken with criminalized individuals. I was suspicious of how much this “help” was predicated on what Tomczak and Buck (2019) identify as attempts at “fixing” service-users. I began to understand how care and control can become contiguous outcomes in efforts to help others—particularly when such help is extended across social/cultural divisions. This encouraged me to reflect on the consequences of practice in the PVS. I wondered how we might begin to better reconcile the competing impulses to help criminalized individuals live “better” lives—away from surveillance, state violence, and imprisonment—and, still, fiercely respect their self-determination.


I was curious if others working and volunteering in the PVS had similar questions. If they, too, were troubled by how “the helper” and its antipode, “the helped”, were relationally constructed in the work of this sector. So, being an aspiring sociologist in need of a dissertation topic, I designed a research project around these ruminations. Two and a half years later, the first paper from this project, “Inside the penal voluntary sector: Divided discourses of “helping” criminalized women”, can be found in Punishment & Society (Online First).


This article investigates how individuals in the penal voluntary sector understand their roles in helping criminalized women and how these perspectives vary across different organizational positions: volunteers, practitioners, and “professional exes”. The core argument of this work is that although individuals in the PVS may share aspirations of helping criminalized women, how they “choose to engage in the helping agenda” (Fenton, 2015, p. 1427; see also: McNeill, Burns, Halliday, Hutton, & Tata, 2009) varies across diversely situated field positions.


Drawing primarily on Bourdieu’s field theory with infusion from the American pragmatist and phenomenological intellectual traditions, I show how volunteers, practitioners, and professional exes in the PVS utilize variegated discourses of helping as they contend (and collaborate) over the help that criminalized women “need” and who is best positioned to offer it. I illustrate how they struggle with one another to define field priorities—the kind of help to offer and the “locus of ‘expert’ practice” (Clare, 1988, p. 493)—mobilizing competing discourses that describe and legitimate their roles in helping criminalized women.


I also propose that there is developing evidence to suggest that such differences have practical consequences for how criminalized women choose to engage with individuals in the PVS. In other words, how volunteers, practitioners, and professional exes conceptualize the help they provide may impact the kinds of relationships they can develop with criminalized women. As a result, it is important to consider the responses that different styles of helping may call forth from service users. Not all help offered will be equally effective (or even accepted). This is a critical insight for the implementation of the growing number of PVS policies and programs around the world, particularly as their funding increasingly depends upon social impact and service user outcomes.


Addams, J. (1902). Democracy and Social Ethics. Macmillans: London.

Clare, M. (1988). Supervision, Role Strain and Social Services Departments. British Journal of Social Work, 18(5), 489-507.

Fenton, J. (2015). An Analysis of ‘Ethical Stress’ in Criminal Justice Social Work in Scotland: The Place of Values. British Journal of Social Work, 45(5), 1415-1432.

McNeill, F., Burns, N., Halliday, S., Hutton, N., & Tata, C. (2009). Risk, responsibility and reconfiguration: Penal adaptation and misadaptation. Punishment & Society, 11(4), 419-442.

Quinn, K. (2019). Inside the penal voluntary sector: Divided discourses of “helping” criminalized women. Punishment & Society.

Tomczak, P. and Buck, G. (2019). The Penal Voluntary Sector: A Hybrid Sociology. British Journal of Criminology , 59(4), 898-918.


Kaitlyn Quinn is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto, Canada. Her SSHRC-funded dissertation research investigates the penal voluntary sector in Canada with a focus on criminalized women. She is also a Research Associate at the University of Nottingham, UK in the School of Sociology and Social Policy.


You can follow her on Twitter @KaitlynQuinn90 or visit her personal website for more information about her research. If you have questions or want to chat more about anything you’ve read here, you can contact her at

Philippa Tomczak