Skip to Main Content Albertsons Library Reservations


Barriers to Employment: What the Offender Brings To the Process

Each ex-offender is a unique individual; yet as a group, ex-offenders tend to bring the following common characteristics or attitudes to the process of vocational rehabilitation:

  • Offenders face feelings of failure and hopelessness. Ex-offenders tend to have a long history of failure behind them and may feel that there is little they can do to change their lives. They may have failed at school, at relationships, and at crime, and may have little faith that they will find a job or that employment will make a difference in their lives.

  • Offenders often feel alienated from mainstream institutions. Offenders' experiences with school, health care facilities, welfare and child welfare offices, lawyers, police, and courts have been primarily negative. Their roles while involved with these institutions tend to be those of supplicant or "wrongdoer." Most often, they are told--rather than asked--what their needs are and how those needs will be met. With overwhelming caseloads, human service workers are often too pressed for time to listen to offenders or answer questions. Offenders may perceive this as a lack of respect. As they enter substance abuse treatment and vocational rehabilitation, ex-offenders might expect to face more of the same: requirements laid down by overworked people who believe they know best and who do not care whether the "help" they are offering meets clients' real needs or concerns. Offenders often expect to be treated with contempt and hostility; their sensitivity to the attitudes of others can make them seem "touchy" to counselors.

  • Offenders learn to be cynical and to manipulate the system. From the perspective of an ex-offender, the most sensible way to deal with people assigned to provide "help" he may not want or believe he needs may be to find and exploit the system's weaknesses. The objective is to avoid compliance with burdensome requirements but retain whatever benefits the system offers. Often, in the offender's experience, passive resistance works because the system does not have the capacity to follow through and enforce rules with sanctions.

  • As a group, offenders tend to be less educated, less skilled, and less mature than the general population. Those who spent their youth abusing substances probably did poorly in school and may never have had the opportunity to learn work-related skills or to mature.

  • Some studies have shown that offenders tend to have higher rates of attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) and other learning disabilities than the general population (Eyestone and Howell, 1994; Mannuzza et al., 1989; U.S. Department of Justice, 1998). Offenders may have had considerable difficulty in school because of problems with concentration, comprehension, ability to plan, and ability to sustain effort. When these problems are not addressed in school, they lead to further skill deficits.

  • Offenders' educational, mental, and social problems are not addressed in prison. In many jurisdictions, these services were casualties of the explosive growth in prison population or never were available except at a minimal level.

  • Incarceration widens the educational and social gap. Incarceration leads to "disculturation"--that is, inmates lose or "fail to acquire some of the habits currently required in the wider society" (Goffman, 1961). The very nature of an all-encompassing institution like a prison is incompatible with the development of the social skills needed to succeed in society at large. The prison inmate undergoes a total loss of autonomy. Others determine every detail of his life--from where he will live and when he wakes up in the morning, to what he will eat and how he will spend his time. Successful adaptation to prison requires accepting this loss of autonomy.

Adapted from

Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP)

Source:Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Integrating Substance Abuse Treatment and Vocational Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2000. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 38.) Chapter 8—Working With the Ex-Offender. Available from:

Overcoming Barriers Resulting from Offender Alienation

  • Respect.  When an ex-offender resists meeting program requirements, staff should not assume that the cause is willful disobedience. Resistance may arise from a variety of sources, including fear, anxiety, ignorance, lack of social skills, or the "lessons" learned in prison. Respecting the client means working with her to locate the reason for her resistance and then helping her overcome it. [You] can also demonstrate respect by... looking at clients directly and asking, "How are you?".  

  • Hope. Offenders accustomed to failure and feelings of hopelessness need contact with positive role models.

  • Positive incentives. Offenders need to experience achievement rather than failure. 

  • Clear information. Offenders need to know what they can expect: what the steps or stages are, how long each lasts, what happens during each stage, and what the rules are, as well as the consequences of violating them.

  • Consistency. If there are inconsistent or delayed responses to rule violations, the rules might simply be disobeyed.

  • Compassion. You should be aware that the ex-offender may be juggling many demands. Requirements laid down by the substance abuse treatment counselor may be competing with criminal justice reporting requirements (e.g., to a parole officer) or family obligations. From the ex-offender's perspective, it may seem that everyone trying to "help" her is piling on competing demands that are impossible for her to meet and that make failure inevitable. 

  • Information about the career ladder. Many ex-offenders believe that if they do obtain employment, it will be in a low-paying, "dead end" job. Clients need to develop a vision of increasing job skills and increasing job complexity, leading to increased pay and responsibility.

  • Assistance in transfer of skills. Often people overlook some of their clients' "special talents" that may have served to bring about negative outcomes in the past but that can be used in a new way when the ex-offender is clean and sober. For example, an ex-offender who was a leader of gang activity and showed management abilities (under negative circumstances) can be assisted to see that those same skills could be used to lead a work crew.

               Adapted from

              Integrating Substance Abuse Treatment and Vocational Services.

              Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP)

Source: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Integrating Substance Abuse Treatment and Vocational Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2000. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 38.) Chapter 8—Working With the Ex-Offender. Available from: