Issues related to mass incarceration in the United States are regular topics in both scholarly and popular discourse. This is not surprising given that "in 2012 about 1 in every 35 adults in the United States ... was on probation or parole or incarcerated in prison or jail" (Glaze & Herberman, 2013, p. 1). Although women compose only 6.7% of the total population in state and federal prisons, women in 2012 constituted 24% of the adults on probation and 11% of adults on parole (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2015; Marushak & Bonczar, 2013). These women are returning citizens, a term preferred over ex-offender because it resists objectification.
Despite the centrality of social justice to career development, most research on employment and returning citizens comes from sociology and criminology (Brown, 2011; K. M. O'Brien, 2001). Career counselors are in a unique position to contribute positively to women's reentry and employment success, yet there remains a dearth of research in this area (Brown, 2011; Shivy et al., 2007; Thompson & Cummings, 2010). The present study aims to address this gap in the literature by using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) to examine the lived experiences of eight female returning citizens as they participated in It's More Than a Job Club, Sister, a spiritually integrated career intervention. Spiritually integrated career interventions place meaning and purpose at the center of vocational guidance by recognizing that many individuals' religious or spiritual beliefs structure their worldviews, emphasizing fulfillment of purpose through "being" as well as "doing," and encouraging the pursuit of vocations with prosocial ends.
Women and Incarceration
Women's and men's pathways to crime and experiences behind bars are distinct. Incarcerated women are more likely to be serving time for drug offenses rather than violent crimes and are disproportionately African American, over the age of 30, and at least high school graduates or holders of a General Equivalency Degree (GED; P. O'Brien, 2001). They are overwhelmingly mothers, with 70% of women in prison having young children at the time of incarceration, and they are more likely than incarcerated men to have mental health problems (Berman, 2005; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999). Following incarceration, women typically return to their neighborhoods and families only to face numerous barriers to successful reentry, such as finding housing and legitimate income; reconnecting with family and children; addressing substance abuse issues and physical and mental health concerns; and meeting parole requirements (Berman, 2005; P. O'Brien & Young, 2006)."
The Impact of a Criminal Record on Employment
Numerous factors negatively affect one's employment prospects following incarceration. Parole conditions often require returning citizens to reside in the communities from which they came, which can limit access to public transportation, industries using their skill sets, job openings, and peers who provide connections to the "world of legitimate work" (Holzer, Raphael, & Stoll, 2003, p. 6). Returning citizens' educational experiences can also function as barriers to achieving employment. Although 14% of women in state prisons have had some college-level education, 42% have not completed high school or the GED (Harlow, 2003). Many vocational training programs in prisons are "limited to low prestige, low paying, gender-traditional occupations such as cosmetology, sewing, and food preparation" (Chartrand & Rose, 1996, p. 344). These factors can negatively affect women's self-efficacy and thus their employment prospects.
Female returning citizens' employment histories and prospects can also serve as a barrier. Over 53% of women were unemployed at the time of their arrest (Morton & Snell, 1994). In addition, although state laws vary, it is common for returning citizens to be permanently or temporarily restricted from working in many licensed health care and trade professions (American Bar Association, 2013; Thompson & Cummings, 2010). A movement is under way to "ban the box" by removing questions about conviction histories on job applications and has been adopted by 13 states, Washington, DC, and 96 cities and counties (National Employment Law Project, 2015). Yet, it is increasingly easy to gain knowledge of prospective employees' past arrests and convictions through the Internet and public access to criminal history records (Holzer, Raphael, & Stoll, 2003).
Substance Abuse and Recovery
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, women offenders in state prisons reported higher drug usage than did men in state prisons, and 53% of women were using drugs, alcohol, or both at the time of their offense (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999). Despite the fact that an estimated 60% of women in state prisons were abusing or dependent upon drugs prior to arrest, only one in five incarcerated women receives treatment in state prisons and only one in eight in federal prisons (Mumola, 1999; Mumola & Karberg, 2006). Substance abuse and recovery are important concerns for career counselors working with female returning citizens. According to Graham (2006), a common downfall of career counseling with individuals in recovery is an overemphasis on obtaining immediate employment in a manner that obfuscates problems accompanying substance dependence, such as poor social skills, lack of employment history, and unrealistic job expectations.
Spirituality and Career Development
Research into the impact of spiritual and religious beliefs and practices on physical well-being and mental health-related outcomes gave rise to a growing body of literature addressing the intersection of spirituality and career development (Duffy, 2006). A number of empirical studies evidence positive connections between spirituality and career decision self-efficacy, positive coping with career-related challenges, and finding meaning and purpose in a career (Duffy, 2006). Although there is no known literature addressing the intersection of spirituality and career development with returning citizens, according to a study by Shivy et al. (2007), spiritual beliefs, whether related to or distinct from a religious tradition, are important to returning citizens reentering the workforce. This finding is not surprising because spiritual and religious programming is central to the prison experience, yet additional research is needed regarding the role of spirituality and religion in career development with returning citizens.
Career interventions offered within prisons and for returning citizens tend to focus on "skill development to the detriment of career guidance" (Vernick & Reardon, 2001, p. 267). Participating in job readiness programs typically entails learning resume and cover letter writing, job search techniques, how to dress for success, and interview skills. This approach fails to leverage the wisdom garnered through decades of career development research, which is especially problematic because returning citizens often possess "limited awareness of their career interests, needs/ values, and abilities" (Shivy et al., 2007, p. 467). In an effort to tailor career interventions to the unique needs of returning citizens, Harley (2014) summarized the following (non-evidence-based) best practices: assess returning citizens' educational and vocational certificates; attend to each individual's coping skills, stress management skills, substance-related issues, and cultural context; and address basic needs.
It's More Than a Job Club, Sister is a spiritually integrated career development intervention designed specifically for female returning citizens. The intervention focuses on both skill acquisition and career guidance, and consists of a 16-hour curriculum, implemented over the course of 8 weeks, that complements skill development (i.e., networking, preparing a resume and cover letter, online job searching, and interviewing) with creative exploration into one's strengths, interests, and vocational values. The intervention aims to increase hope through fostering self-esteem and self-knowledge and to increase self-efficacy through the development of self-aiding thought patterns, decisionmaking skills, and exploration of possibilities. A detailed description of the intervention is available from the first author.
It's More Than a Job Club, Sister is grounded in a narrative career counseling method (Zikic & Franklin, 2010) and recognizes calling as central to one's vocational journey (Dik & Duffy, 2009). By employing a narrative method, the intervention uses a constructivist approach that encourages women to "story" their careers in ways that empower them "to make career transitions, focus on exploring new career possibilities, and ... clarify their career and life domains" (Zikic & Franklin, 2010, p. 180). Reframing or re-storying their careers is important in light of the job-related barriers that returning citizens frequently experience. The intervention places spirituality, meaning, and purpose at the center of one's vocational journey by facilitating reflection upon one's calling, whether experienced as a call by God or a source defined by the individual, and exploring how one's strengths and values can be leveraged in positions that serve self, community, and the wider society. We educated the participants in this study on becoming "hope providers" for themselves and their "sisters," thus fostering a spiritual support community grounded in the belief that a vocation is more than a job and a paycheck.