Volunteer Career Services in a Prison

By Ron Elsdon

Securing work that provides adequate financial support is challenging when re-entering society after incarceration. Barriers are significant, whether in the form of hurdles to employment or lack of resources to pursue self-employment. We can assist by offering career counseling expertise. Building on an example, this article explores the rewards and challenges and how we can contribute.

If I, a white male, with a funny (U.K.) accent and no prior prison experience, can provide useful volunteer career assistance to those in a Federal women’s prison, this opportunity is accessible to anyone in our profession. The prison where I volunteer houses about one thousand women, mostly in the prison proper, some in a minimum security, adjacent facility. I connected initially through our local, progressive church when the prison needed career services. In providing volunteer career services in prison, I find most women are struggling to put their lives back together, some rather anxious, most open, respectful, and welcoming of career support. The following perspectives and resources may assist others considering such volunteer work.

Approach to Career Services

Not surprisingly, emotional aspects are particularly significant for those approaching re-entry. 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 central. This includes emphasizing learning occurring inside the prison; including work experience, educational activities, and interpersonal skills.

Group delivery accommodates well the many people seeking career services support. The content of my volunteer career work evolves based on input from participants and the re-entry affairs coordinator at the prison. It currently consists of two series of classes, the first series of five classes addresses conventional job search. The second series of four classes, expanded in scope at the request of participants, addresses nontraditional career paths/self-employment. To accommodate prison scheduling, classes are delivered in two-hour modules once a week. To encourage interaction, class size is limited to twenty-five people.

The conventional job search series helps participants build self-understanding, learn how to explore opportunities, and develop communication capabilities. It addresses particular needs of this population, for example, how to discuss in an interview employment gaps due to incarceration.

The five classes cover:

Resources include: “Step Ahead Workbook: Career Planning for People with Criminal Convictions” (Goodwill/Easter Seals and iSeek Solutions, 2013), a DVD from Cambridge Educational (2008) on job interviewing for ex-offenders, and material from the ex-offenders section of the careeronestop web site (careeronestop web site for workers with a criminal conviction). Additional volunteers add much. For example my wife, Linda, delivers education as a bridge, having expertise in the going to college process. Linda, and an experienced volunteer from the HR world, Terri Jones, help facilitate the mock interview session.

Content for the nontraditional career path/self-employment class series, which includes handouts and exercises, is based on my recent book How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption (Elsdon, 2014). The series of four classes addresses:

Participants complete a template over the four sessions, creating an outline of their nontraditional career/self-employment path. In the fourth session each person reviews her approach with a small group. As a result, participants gain both insights from others about their own endeavors and contribute input to their peers' paths.

Participants complete an evaluation at the end of each class series. This evaluation includes both qualitative and quantitative questions, based on the first three levels of the Kirkpatrick framework: reaction to the classes, knowledge gained, and behavior change (Erickson and Elsdon, 2010).

Challenges of Working in a Prison Environment

Flexibility is important when working in a prison setting as there are challenges:

Observations and Benefits

From my perspective as a volunteer, here are some observations and benefits that you could anticipate:

Here is a quote from one participant’s evaluation: “Wonderful class. I looked forward to coming every Wednesday.” The feeling is mutual. I encourage you to consider volunteering in this way.


Cambridge Educational. (2008). The Job Interview. New York: Films Media Group. Retrieved from http://www.films.com/ecTitleDetail.aspx?TitleID=15317

Careeronestop web site for workers with a criminal conviction. Retrieved from http://www.careeronestop.org/ResourcesFor/WorkerCriminalConviction/worker-with-a-criminial-conviction.aspx

Elsdon, R. (2014). How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

Erickson, R., & R. Elsdon. (2010). Designing, Developing and Measuring Effective Career Development Processes and Systems. In R. Elsdon (Ed), Building Workforce Strength: Creating Value through Workforce and Career Development. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.

Goodwill/Easter Seals and iSeek Solutions. (2013). Step Ahead Workbook. Minnesota: Minnesota Department of Corrections. Retrieved from http://www.iseek.org/exoffenders/workbook.html


Ron Elsdon 2014Ron Elsdon is a founder of organizations in the career and workforce development fields. His published works include: How to Build a Nontraditional Career Path: Embracing Economic Disruption (Praeger, 2014); editor of Business Behaving Well: Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing (Potomac Books, Inc., 2013); editor of Building Workforce Strength: Creating Value through Workforce and Career Development (Praeger, 2010); and author of Affiliation in the Workplace: Value Creation in the New Organization (Praeger, 2003). He holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from Cambridge University, a master’s in career development from John F. Kennedy University, and a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Leeds University. Ron can be reached at renewal@elsdon.com, for example for questions about handouts. His web site is www.elsdon.com

Printer-Friendly Version


Pearl Sims   on Monday 02/08/2016 at 08:22 PM

As always, I found your article instructive and, more importantly, inspirational. Thank you!


Ron Elsdon   on Tuesday 02/09/2016 at 02:39 AM

Thank you Pearl!

Nancy Miller   on Wednesday 12/21/2016 at 06:20 PM

Hi Ron, you are addressing an important topic for people with many challenges to employment. I didn't see a reference to this article when it was published in the Fall CCDA Journal. It would be helpful for readers if you reference previous publications of the article. I'm glad to see you are getting this information out the readers.

Ron Elsdon   on Wednesday 12/21/2016 at 06:36 PM

Thank you for your comment Nancy. The following information was included at the end of the CCDA article (in the Fall journal) as requested by NCDA: "The article, Volunteer Career Services in a Prison, by Ron Elsdon, originally appeared in NCDA's web magazine, Career Convergence, at www.ncda.org. Copyright © February, 2016. Reprinted with permission."

Nancy Miller   on Friday 12/30/2016 at 09:54 PM

Thank you for clarifying, Ron. I must have been so intrigued with your article and bio that I didn't follow to the end. Of course you are well versed in references and attributions. I've worked with many clients coming out of prison and seen their hopes and let downs. On occasion I had a client who had a wonderful resume, cover letter, and realistic expectations. There is so much important work to be done.

Ron Elsdon   on Saturday 12/31/2016 at 12:09 AM

Thank you Nancy! How good of you to bring your knowledge and understanding to clients approaching re-entry.

Marshel Pollock-Lawrence   on Friday 04/07/2017 at 12:08 PM

This article was helpful in bringing together the whole perspective of helping those behind the prison walls and how I can assist with the prison population here. I am inspired and motivated to volunteer services for those that need career development assistance and training prior to their entry into society. Thanks.

Ron Elsdon   on Friday 04/07/2017 at 12:55 PM

I am glad the article was helpful Marshel. Wishing you well in your volunteer endeavors.

Pat Reddick   on Wednesday 06/14/2017 at 06:37 PM

Hi Mr. Elsdon:
Your information is just what I needed to help me in pursuing my dream to put in place a program in my town to assist exiting inmates on how to get them back in the workforce. Great information, it gave me the needed inspiration to believe that there is hope after incarceration.
Thank you

Ron Elsdon   on Wednesday 06/14/2017 at 06:52 PM

I am glad the information was helpful Pat. Wishing you well with your program.

Elisabeth Sanders-Park   on Friday 08/18/2017 at 12:21 PM

RON: Thank you for your service and for sharing in this article. We met a few years back when we both spoke at the CCDA Conference. I co-authored "No One Is Unemployable", have worked with clients in prison, and train practitioners serving people pre- and post-release. Perhaps we can find ways to do something worthwhile together. Let me know if you'd like to discuss it.

***Readers who benefited from this article can find lots of practical strategies to help people with various barriers to begin and succeed in careers at: http://worknetsolutions.com/articles/.

Ron Elsdon   on Friday 08/18/2017 at 04:16 PM

Good to hear from you Elisabeth. I would be pleased to touch bases. Feel free to send me an email (renewal@elsdon.com) with some possible days/times for a call.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.