Cover: Improving Employment Outcomes for the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Returning Citizens

Improving Employment Outcomes for the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Returning Citizens

Published Jun 26, 2023

by Joe Russo, Samuel Peterson, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Dulani Woods, Brian A. Jackson

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Research Questions

  1. What are the key challenges and opportunities associated with improving employment outcomes among BOP releasees?
  2. What steps can the BOP take to improve employment outcomes?

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is responsible for the custody and care of approximately 159,000 individuals. This responsibility includes safe and secure housing in correctional facilities located across the United States. Equally important is its responsibility to provide programming and support to help ensure that individuals released from federal custody are able to successfully transition from prison to the community and refrain from criminal activity. This transition can be challenging, and, for a variety of reasons, many returning citizens ultimately reengage with the criminal justice system at some point.

Gainful employment has been recognized as a key factor in efforts to reduce recidivism. However, returning citizens who were incarcerated in federal prisons, particularly individuals with limited work histories or who have been out of the labor market for several years, face significant and well-documented barriers to employment. Preparing returning citizens for employment and supporting them through the reentry and employment processes can improve reentry outcomes and strengthen communities.

To explore challenges and opportunities associated with improving employment outcomes among BOP releasees, the National Institute of Justice — supported by the RAND Corporation, in partnership with the University of Denver — hosted a virtual workshop of BOP staff, community-based reentry service providers, researchers, national employers, and other experts. This report summarizes discussion points from the workshop and presents a wide-ranging set of needs identified by workshop participants.

Key Findings

  • Employment outcomes would be improved through sustained leadership focus on and commitment to an organizational culture that better supports incarcerated individuals and addresses their vocational and educational needs.
  • Embracing technology and bringing in more external partners — including those who have previously been incarcerated — are important for providing support and can be done safely with proper controls.
  • Preparing incarcerated individuals for employment on release should start as early as possible during incarceration. For example, individuals can start career planning, vocational or educational programming, and reentry preparation early during incarceration.
  • Most incarcerated individuals are transitioned to contracted residential reentry centers (RRCs) prior to release from BOP custody. Employment outcomes could improve with greater RRC capacity overall, as well as more RRCs in closer proximity to communities that individuals are returning to.
  • There is a need to leverage community-based organizations to help individuals better manage the difficult transition back to society.
  • The BOP typically does not track people once they leave BOP custody, and gathering the data necessary to truly evaluate the effectiveness of employment programs is a challenge.
  • The BOP is encouraged to track granular data on releasees' employment outcomes. These data can help the agency gain insight into which programs are correlated to successful outcomes and may inform program planning.
  • To mitigate the stigma of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals, second-chance employers are encouraged to share their success stories with their peers and to share data on employment outcomes to help demonstrate the value of tapping into this pool of talent.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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