Focusing on Career Development with Inmates

By Amy Thul-Sigler

At 25 years old, I signed a one year contract to work as an adult educator in a county prison. It was my first job after receiving a master’s degree in counseling. The job granted me hundreds of eye opening experiences. It was through this experience that I learned essential strategies for helping those who were incarcerated with career preparations.

My experiences did more than just improve my career counseling skills. I learned about ‘the hole,’ counted the pencils I brought to work, and heard countless times not to tell the inmates my last name for safety reasons. This was a new position, and I was hired to fill multiple roles that included teaching GED subjects, prepping inmates to find work upon their release, and teaching them skills needed to be a working citizen, such as interviewing skills and workplace etiquette. Without any resources to begin, I tried various ways to build the class with pencils and paper only.

Tips for Helping Inmates with Their Career Trajectory

These are suggested strategies based on my experiences with the incarcerated:

Provide realistic advice about what occupations can be obtained with a criminal background. This was especially difficult as many inmates had expressed their desire to work within the medical field, education, or legal profession.  Most were not aware they would be asked to complete and pass a background check for 99% of jobs they would apply to.  

Investigate career opportunities outside of the jail to find positions suitable and appropriate for each inmate’s background and interests.  Computers were not allowed in the classroom which made job search efforts challenging. I brought in local newspapers’ employment sections which provided job descriptions for inmates to read and benchmark their own skills and abilities.

Community resources can be fruitful. Use them. Not all inmates will reside in the community the prison is located after being released.  Some will move to be near family, and others will choose another geographic location for a fresh start. Local resources, however, still provided useful information. I talked to local agencies and organizations including the community One-Stop Career Center, numerous pastors and ministers, volunteer organizations, and the local colleges. These establishments provided me with additional ideas including support groups, educational training programs, and information regarding free career coaching once inmates were released.

Create a table showing what businesses both locally and nationally hire people with criminal records. One organization provided me with a list of employers that previously hired ex-felons.  For those that were not on the list I approached them about the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, http://www.doleta.gov/business/incentives/opptax/, which is a benefit to employers who hire ex-felons.

Stress the importance of volunteer work.  I encouraged the inmates, if able, to volunteer for a role within the prison whether it was kitchen, laundry, or janitorial work. These positions could be placed on their resume, especially if they accounted for a large time gap or if they were skills that were newly learned. As a citizen returning to the community, I instilled the value of continuing their volunteer work if they were able to.  It would provide them an opportunity to socialize and network while providing a community service.

Look for opportunities to develop skills needed in the workplace.  I asked the inmates to do most of their activities as a group or I split them into small teams.   The group setting allowed them to work together and give feedback to one another. Together, we had discussion groups on numerous topics, including positive attitude, punctuality, reliability, and respect.

Develop workshops focusing on resumes and cover letters, filling out job applications, and holding mock interviews. The subjects that were addressed included how to answer questions about prior felonies, time lapses on resumes, and securing professional references.  I asked them to rehearse both roles as interviewer and interviewee.  Practicing interviews helped develop their communication skills and confidence.

Personal Reflection

I decided to forego renewing my contract at the prison after one year despite experiencing some great success stories. I still use the lessons I learned in my personal and professional life with current clients, such as:

  • Do not be intimidated or scared to work with difficult clients.

  • Listen closely to clients’ stories, taking in their verbal and nonverbal cues.

  • Accept that you may not be the right fit for every client.

Working within the prison provided an opportunity every day to become a student again as it was filled with informal learning experiences. It was extremely rewarding to assist a challenging population as it sharpened my skills and gave me a sense of fulfillment. Inmates have few adults to perceive as a role model which gives any counselor or instructor the ability to influence lives in a positive manner.

Additional Resources:






Amy Thul-SiglerAmy Thul-Sigler is currently an Assistant Director at Penn State University, Alumni Career Services. She holds a master’s degree in Counseling and is currently completing her doctorate in Adult Education where her research interests are values and career decision making. She also is a Global Career Development Facilitator and a Field Editor for Career Convergence. She can be reached at ast144@psu.edu


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Roberta White   on Tuesday 11/03/2015 at 08:40 PM

Thanks for the tips, Amy. I often forget about the significant role clergy and religious organizations play in the re-entry of offenders back into the community.

I have long wanted to do this type of work, both in adult and juvenile institutions. Do you have any suggestions on how to move into that field? Any insights or resources would be most welcome.

Larry Robbin   on Friday 11/06/2015 at 09:51 AM

According to the National Employment Law Project, one out of four Americans has a criminal record on file somewhere. Career counselors are working with many more people in reentry than they often realize. On my website at www.LarryRobbin.com in the Resource Section you can download my Reentry and Employment Resource List. In the Handout section you can download What Were the Steps on Your Path? which is a good tool to help people see what led up to their conviction so they can avoid this problem in the future.

Taylor Hansen   on Friday 11/13/2020 at 10:52 AM

I found it beneficial when you said that not all inmates reside in the community the prison is located in. My brother just got sent to prison and we're wanting him to get some sort of training or education while in there. I'll be sure to tell him about this the next time I visit him. https://hccorrectionsconsultants.com/

Brea Dunn   on Friday 12/11/2020 at 09:22 AM

Hi Amy! I use to be an academic advisor at PSU World Campus. I am currently a psych at SCI Benner Township. I have a lot of inmates that ask questions pertaining to employment or furthering their education as an 'ex-felon.' One question specifically working in the field of counseling as an 'ex felon.' Do you have any insight or resources you can provide?

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