Volume 25, No. 4: Focus on Career Pathways Partnership Award Winners

A Key to Recidivism Reduction: In-Prison Career Development

Peter Moote

When I walked out of the federal prison and felt the vibration from the closing metal door crawl up my spine, I knew I had to continue the career development project we had started with the help of one supportive officer. The project had been successful in helping over 100 men chart career paths to follow when they left prison with full student aid and contact information for their halfway houses and local community colleges. The program abruptly ended when the supportive officer retired.

The power of the memories of men turning depression into motivation still wakes me some nights with new resolve. I lived with these men people feared because of their crimes or their upbringing on the streets. But the truth is they care for their children, spouses, and families as much as we all do. The truth is they don’t want to go back to the streets, but they fear they have no alternative because they know nothing else and have been taught nothing new. In fact most of their incarceration learning comes from the exaggerated stories they tell each other about their criminal activity and exploits. It is foolish talk, for they are sitting out years on the sidelines in a prison because they all failed at their criminal careers. And they will fail again when they get out if they go back to it. But they know this.

The weekends were usually sad. Men came back from the telephones with stories of spouses or their children’s mothers being evicted due to inadequate finances, their children getting into trouble, or their friends and siblings suffering hardships with nothing they could do about any of it but cry, scream, or rage. I was lucky in that my children were all grown and had good occupations of their own. However, if my children had been young and fatherless, I would have felt the same sick feelings those men felt. The mere presence of these sorrowful men led me to realize I knew something they did not know, but could learn. I was an employment and disability attorney in my previous 30 years of life. These men were all intelligent and determined individuals with burning desires to find a way to provide well for their families. I helped others in my practice find new careers when they were disabled or terminated. There was no reason why it could not happen for these men.

I was in an in-prison treatment program at the time. The importance of this is the fact we had a couple of caring counselors. One of them thought it would be a good adjunct to treatment if we started helping men develop career paths. I was able to put on periodic workshops. There were other college educated inmates who helped with education and career planning. More than half of the men sought out our assistance. We developed aptitude analyses to find motivating career goals. We assessed educational and work backgrounds. We drafted plans all the way from pre-GED to college. We had enough educated or experienced inmate tutors to keep everyone who was motivated on continuous task. The supportive counselor/officer obtained teaching materials and community college/vocational technical course schedules for the geographic areas these men would return to, for reintegration into their communities. We helped them write up proposed class schedules for their schools of choice. We prepared resumes and even conducted mock job interviews. We got really good at writing resumes with no prior work histories. The mock interviews were studies in patience and discipline, but the men were determined to do well.

The weekend phone calls turned from sad to satisfied. These men could finally tell their families of something positive they were working on and going to accomplish when they gained release. The families were now armed with something they could do to help support their inmates. They could contact community colleges and vocational schools, they could contact employers, and they could engage sponsors to help in re-entry.

Then the counselor retired and it all ended. There was no follow-up. There was no more planning. Much of the education had to stop. No one else would let us continue this work.

Finally, I walked out that heavy metal door and felt the vibration awaken me to this continuing need. The need is to commence career planning and development during the last years of incarceration. The unacceptable statistic of 67% recidivism has not budged in over 20 years because we keep delaying the education and training until inmates are released with the same lack of skills and income earning capacity they entered prison with. When they are released, their families are desperate for financial help that these re-entering inmates cannot provide unless they return to the streets they know.

We claim to be an enlightened society. We claim to cherish human dignity. This situation is intolerable in such a society. This writing should be considered a call to action. There will be no improvement in the recidivism rate and no restoration for the families until we recognize what we must do and attend to it with vigor.

Mr. Moote has formed a non-profit corporation, New Careers Development Campaign, to carry on his mission to assist the reintegration of parolees into gainful employment. He will be presenting a forum at the NCPN conference on Friday, October 30, at 8:15 a.m. titled, “Addressing Recidivism: A Formula from an Insider.” For more information, contact him at mootepeter@gmail.com.