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Studies of prison work, vocational programs lean positive, but several issues require further research

Fostering stable employment for people released from prison is an important issue for social justice and public safety, as well as for economic and workforce development. But studies on the efficacy of in-prison work programs designed to improve incarcerated people’s chances of getting jobs after they are released have yielded ambiguous results. Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of program evaluations to determine what makes such programs successful. They found that although studies lean to positive conclusions, several issues require further study before researchers can conclude whether and for whom prison work and vocational programs succeed.

The analysis, by researchers at The Pennsylvania State University, appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

“Nearly all incarcerated people participate in prison work during their incarceration, with about half taking part in educational or vocational programming,” according to Alexandra V. Nur, a graduate research assistant in sociology and criminology at Penn State, who coauthored the analysis. “With so many people in these programs and with generally ambiguous findings about their success, it is crucial that we determine what constitutes best practices.”

Employment is a key factor in reducing recidivism and reintegrating incarcerated people into society. But getting a stable job is difficult for individuals who have been released from prison because of educational barriers, lack of work experience, and the stigma of incarceration. In-prison work and vocational programs are among the most widespread rehabilitative options in U.S. corrections programs, but past studies of the programs are dated and many focused on post-release programs.

In this study, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 31 in-prison program evaluations published between 1986 and 2017, focusing on program and study characteristics that moderate conclusions of success to determine what works, for whom, and under what circumstances. They included studies that evaluated adult in-prison programs or programs in which adult participants were under the supervision of criminal justice authorities; all programs were in the United States.

Their analysis found that the mixed findings of past research occurred in part because studies compared programs with inconsistent characteristics or assessed programs differently. In addition, conflicting definitions of programs, variety in program requirements, and the fact that many incarcerated people participate in multiple programs simultaneously or move from one program to another further complicated efforts to accurately assess program outcomes.

For these reasons, the researchers conclude that although the studies they assessed tended to lean toward positive outcomes of in-prison work programs, concluding what components of these programs do or do not aid in reintegration for different populations is difficult. But a clearer assessment of the effects of prison work and vocational training as they relate to re-entry is possible, they say.

Going forward, studies should clearly define outcomes of interest and types of programs (based on program characteristics), compare programs that have evaluated the same or very comparable outcomes, and include participants who have had comparable experiences (e.g., time in a program, completion of a program).

“Conclusions about the overall effect of prison work and vocational programs on re-entry play an important role in policymaking for prisons, incarcerated persons, and communities,” notes Holly Nguyen, associate professor of sociology, criminology, and public policy at Penn State, who coauthored the study. “The field must work toward a cohesive understanding that will help determine work and vocational programs’ true effects on multiple outcomes.”

Summarized from Justice Quarterly, Prison Work and Vocational Programs: A Systematic Review and Analysis of Moderators of Program Success by Nur, AV (Pennsylvania State University), and Nguyen, H (Pennsylvania State University). Copyright 2022. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. All rights reserved.

Contact Information
Caitlin Kizielewicz
Crime and Justice Research Alliance
(412) 554-0074