Flexibility, advocacy key to providing career support for incarcerated clients

Ron Elsdon

“Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul” – Emily Dickinson

author headshotCanada geese walked freely in this women’s prison grounds; inmates and volunteers did not. It looked foreboding at first. Large circles of barbed wire ringed the facility. An escort took us through security, guards carried lots of keys. The women were dressed in identical, khaki prison clothes. There was a 10-minute window each hour to move locations – from work or a housing unit to our classroom in the chapel complex. Hard to keep hope alive in this setting, you might think. And yet, that is what the prison staff tried to do, and that is what the career class series I taught in a California prison was all about. What keeps hope alive if you are involved in the criminal justice system? In this article, we explore how those of us in the career field can address this question.

The big picture

First, for context, let us look at how many people are incarcerated in North America and their demographics. From an advocacy perspective, it is helpful to understand how the scope of incarceration differs in Canada and the United States.

  • There are nearly 40,000 people in prison in Canada, and more than two million in the United States. Female prisoners comprise about 5.6% of the Canadian prison population and about 10% in the United States. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, whereas Canada is 141st (World Prison Brief).
  • More than 30% of those in Canadian prisons are Indigenous people, but they make up only 5% of the general population (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2020). This proportion has been rising steadily (The John Howard Society of Canada, 2020).
  • In Canada, 79% of people entering prison do not have their high school diploma. More than 86% of women in prison report having been physically abused at some point in their lives, and many prisoners have mental health issues and/or substance use disorders (Prison Free Press).
Developing career programming for incarcerated women

I delivered career support classes in a U.S. federal women’s prison for about five years starting in 2014 (Elsdon, 2016), with the support of other volunteers. The program included five classes on conventional employment, building on a resource from Minnesota Career and Technical Education (2019); material from the ex-offenders section of the Careeronestop website; and my own content. There were four classes on non-traditional career paths/self-employment, expanded in scope at the request of participants, which built on the book How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption (Elsdon, 2014).

It might seem naive to think that career development approaches, often created with well-educated, resource-rich clients, would work for those in the criminal justice system, who often lack both education and resources. Indeed, I learned from the first test class delivered in prison that I could not just take workshops about conventional job search from other settings into the prison, as participants’ needs were different. For example, most prison participants are worried about how to respond to the interview question, “I see you have been incarcerated, tell me about that,” and welcome coaching about their response. That is not a question I had dealt with previously. Conversely, there are some approaches that work equally well within or outside of a prison. For example, a mock interview exercise others developed for students also worked well in the prison setting and was often a highlight for participants.

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Emotional considerations are particularly significant when working with incarcerated people. Conviction, incarceration and the prospect of formidable barriers to financial self-sufficiency are daunting. Offering hope that it is possible to re-engage with work by weaving affirmation of personal potential throughout is crucial. This includes emphasizing learning occurring inside the prison, including work experience, educational activities and interpersonal skills.

Career support can help build a sense of belief and hope, sometimes in unexpected ways. I recall one class participant realizing that illegal activities leading to her incarceration gave her a range of skills, such as selling and communication, that could work well for her in a legal, entrepreneurial setting. There was a murmur of class support for this as others saw the same for themselves.

Flexibility is also important when navigating the challenges of working in the prison system. These challenges include: working with participants who bring a wide range of backgrounds and experiences; competing commitments that can cause participants to miss sessions; and lack of access to electronics and the internet on prison premises. Support from prison staff is instrumental in classes meeting participants’ needs.

I found class evaluations valuable both to help in continually refining session content and in communicating to prison staff how the classes were received. Evaluations by participants in 18 class series showed a 96% satisfaction rating. One participant commented, “Your concern and care for this class gives us the confidence we need to try.” Positive word of mouth led to sign-ups exceeding class availability.

The importance of advocacy

The earlier statistics point to the need for community advocacy through a social and political lens. What can we in the career field do on a community level to make our society better? This includes contributing to reducing poverty or supporting mental health and eliminating the links of both to incarceration. Here is where our social advocacy comes in (Elsdon, 2007, 2013). This means staying informed about social issues, particularly those affecting people who are marginalized. It means influencing public policy for the benefit of those who need it most and are under-represented (e.g. Indigenous populations, those in poverty, those needing mental health support). It means influencing media, joining legislative campaigns and engaging in creative direct action.

Another lens, close to the heart of those of us in the career field, is the lived experience of those in prison or re-entering society. Not surprisingly, the lives of many people involved in the criminal justice system are precarious. Picture coming out of those forbidding prison gates with almost no money, little or no family support, hardly any education, no job and mental health challenges. We can help change this picture for the better. Getting employment or self-employment stability with adequate income can turn despair into hope and reduce the likelihood of returning to prison (Kelly, 2020; Yu, 2018).

In summary, providing career support for those involved in the criminal justice system is rewarding, fulfilling and appreciated. By building on our core career development skills and tailoring our approach appropriately, we can bring hope where it is needed.

Ron Elsdon founded organizations in the career and workforce development fields. His books include: How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path (Praeger); editor of Business Behaving Well (Potomac Books); editor of Building Workforce Strength (Praeger); and author of Affiliation in the Workplace (Praeger). His doctorate (Cambridge University) and bachelor’s (Leeds University) are in chemical engineering; his master’s is in career development (John F. Kennedy University).


Careeronestop web site for a worker with a criminal conviction. Retrieved from careeronestop.org/ResourcesFor/WorkerCriminalConviction/worker-with-a-criminal-conviction.aspx

Elsdon, R. (2007). The Growing Divide Calls for Advocacy. NCDA: Career Convergence. March 2007. Retrieved from ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/5296/_self/layout_details/false

Elsdon, R. (Ed.). (2013). Business Behaving Well: Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books. Information is available at elsdon.com/business-behaving-well.html

Elsdon, R. (2014). How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. Information is available at elsdon.com/how-to-build-a-nontraditional-career-path.html

Elsdon, R. (2016). Volunteer Career Services in a Prison. NCDA: Career Convergence. February 2016. Retrieved from ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/117365/_self/layout_details/false

Goodwill/Easter Seals and Minnesota Career and Technical Education. (2019). Career Planning for People with a Criminal Conviction. Retrieved from careerwise.minnstate.edu/iseek/static/STEP-AHEAD-Workbook2.pdf

Kelly, M. (2020). The Predictive Ability of Self-Efficacy on Recidivism Among Adult Male Offenders. (Doctoral Dissertation, Walden University, 2020). Retrieved from scholarworks.waldenu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9574&context=dissertations

Office of the Correctional Investigator, Indigenous People in Federal Custody Surpasses 30%, Correctional Investigator Issues Statement and Challenge (January 21, 2020), Retrieved from oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/comm/press/press20200121-eng.aspx?texthighlight=indigenous+people+in+federal+custody+surpasses+30%

Prison Free Press, Prison Facts in Canada, Retrieved from prisonfreepress.org/Facts.htm#:~:text=In%202017%2F18%2C%20on%20a,4%25%20from%20the%20previous%20year.

The John Howard Society of Canada, Data on Canada’s Prison System, January 25, 2020, Retrieved from johnhoward.ca/blog/data-on-canadas-prison-system/

World Prison Brief, Retrieved from prisonstudies.org/world-prison-brief-data

Yu, T. (2018). Employment and Recidivism. EBP Society. Retrieved from ebpsociety.org/blog/education/297-employment-recidivism