Great Expectations: Providing Excellence in Reentry Programming

By Staci Parker

Why Demanding Excellence Works in Reentry Programming
Among professional career counselors, is there a common etiquette we expect in our interactions with others?  We might agree that there are common behaviors known, understood and expected of co-workers and employees.  However, if this is true, is it important to expect the same type of conduct from clients, particularly if these clients represent a diverse population, such as offenders and ex-offenders? Perhaps practitioners working in reentry centers or even more directly inside prisons, need to think about expectations when striving for excellence in reentry programming.

While job seekers with criminal histories are very similar to mainstream job seekers, it is important to acknowledge the dissimilarities (Parker & Smedley, 2016). For instance, practitioners must be aware of and understand conditions that may affect former offenders, i.e. distorted self-esteem, academic gaps, low or no job skills, and a limited understanding of the labor market; more specifically employment procedures, etiquette, and practices.

Greene, Haney, and Hurtado (2000) reported that “women represent the fastest growing segment of the rapidly expanding U.S. prison population” (as cited in Bloom & Steinhart, 1993) and that there has been an average annual growth rate of 11.2% since 1985 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Research also showed that 81% of these women did not finish high school or only earned a general equivalency degree (GED) (Greene, Haney, & Hurtado, 2000). Because of these factors, offenders (male and female) normally become repeat offenders due to sociological theories asserting that “criminal behavior is determined largely by one’s social location” (Gendreau, Little, & Goggin, 1996) and the individual’s ability to re-integrate into society. As a consequence, research has found a strong correlation between education and crime.

One of the emphases for effectively working with offenders and ex-offenders “is to focus on the solution to these risk factors [and to] structure programs and services that enhance performance, rewards and satisfaction” (Parker & Smedley, 2016). Therefore, treating clients with respect, dignity, and care throughout the entire cycle of contact are very powerful strategies, which result in the experience of higher expectations being met.

Establishing a positive rapport and building a strong, healthy relationship are always key components to effectively assisting clients. However, the nature of working with an ex-offender may be challenging. Not all individuals with criminal backgrounds disclose their past. So, what do we do if we don’t have all of the information? Can we fully execute the strategies previously discussed? Of course, we can. Remember, everyone wants to be respected and treated with dignity, which is what we should do, keeping in mind that we all have the same basic need to belong (Poston, 2009). Providing clients with acceptance is one of the first steps to cultivating a strong rapport that will be effective to building a positive relationship.

If you are aware of the individual’s history, then you might notice the difficulty for the client to finish projects, which can be challenging. This behavior is often related to a lack of discipline; however, it is also often related to the individual’s ability to connect to the counselor or the material being presented. Therefore, the client must see the value in participating. As a professional in the helping industry, we must show excitement about our client’s participation in our programs. However, it is important to be honest, letting them know what we can and cannot offer them – be upfront. Make your client feel that he/she is more than just a number in a budget. For this, and any other audience, providing a simple message with a few benefits is key.

Other Tips for Increasing Participation and Building Rapport
Make your program client-centered but provide details about your program and be prepared to answer any questions addressing your clients’ concerns. Provide exclusivity and acknowledge your clients through positive affirmations.
Create clear expectations and consequences. This will guide their behavior, give them hope, and create a safe, non-judging environment.
Be a Coach
You might be the only encouraging person in your client’s life. Cheer them on! Inform them. Keep them active. These steps provide good work habits.
Work with other professionals who might be assisting your client too. Don’t overwhelm your client with schedules and appointments that conflict. Be flexible and willing to cooperate with other practitioners.
Advocate Success
Set your clients up to succeed. Show them the path to excellence. Get to know them and remember details. Celebrate small victories and keep your word. In all your efforts, be mindful that we all serve people who deserve to find their place in a community, where they can purposefully offer themselves as contributors to building a better world.


Gendreau, P., Little, T., & Goggin, C. (1996). A meta‚Äźanalysis of the predictors of adult offender recidivism: What works! Criminology, 34(4), 575-608.

Greene, S., Haney, C., & Hurtado, A. (2000). Cycles of pain: Risk factors in the lives of incarcerated mothers and their children. The Prison Journal, 80(1), 3-23.

Parker, S., & Smedley, A. (2016, July). Great Expectations: Why Demanding Excellence Works in Reentry Programming. Paper presented at the NCDA Annual Conference, Chicago.

Poston, B. (2009). An exercise in personal exploration: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Association of Surgical Technologists, 348. Retrieved from http://www.ast.org/pdf/308.pdf


Staci ParkerStaci Parker is a certified professional coach, résumé writer and GCDF. She holds a Master’s degree in Organization Development Psychology and is a current PhD candidate at Walden University. Staci offers career coaching and academic mentoring to all students. Ms. Parker is the creator of Infinity Training & Development Solutions, Coaching from the Inside Out, and PACES Online at teachable.com. You can contact Ms. Parker at infinity.trainingsolutions@yahoo.com or 301-284-8597.

Printer-Friendly Version


Ron Elsdon   on Saturday 04/01/2017 at 01:46 PM

Thank you for your helpful article Staci. You might be interested in an article I wrote for Career Convergence in February 2016 titled "Volunteer Career Services in a Prison." Here's a link:

Lisa Punter   on Saturday 04/01/2017 at 03:15 PM

Great information Staci...I will be working with a re-entry program in Jessup next fall and will utilize your tips.

Larry Robbin   on Saturday 04/01/2017 at 11:06 PM

Thanks for this important article. People may find my Reentry and Employment Resource List and the handout What Were the Steps on Your Path to be helpful to them in working with people in reentry. They can both be found on my website at www.LarryRobbin.com.

Marshel Pollock-Lawrence   on Thursday 04/20/2017 at 03:41 PM

This article was informative and interesting because there are so many variables that affect us as humans in life already without the barriers of dealing with a criminal background. The reality is that we as humans make mistakes so we need not judge our clients but respect them and support the fact that they are willing to move in a positive direction. All too often more programs are built but are they really geared to see that a person recently released from prison succeeds in life, in the real world; surviving?

Elisabeth Sanders-Park   on Thursday 08/17/2017 at 04:05 PM

Thank you, Staci. Good information, well presented. Readers may also be interested in the recent article on this topic (Discovering What is Worthy of Esteem) in the "Working with Difficult Clients" column of Dick Knowdell's most recent 'Career Network Newsletter'. Network membership (including the powerful newsletter and quarterly journal) is now FRE'E. Email me at elisabeth@worknetsolutions.com to get the article and Dick at rknowdell@mac.com to become a Network member.

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.