The Lighthouse for Recovery Ministries - A Beacon of Light for the Soul in Need!
Overcoming Barriers Resulting From Offender Alienation
Overcoming the formidable barriers offenders bring to vocational rehabilitation (VR) requires engaging offenders in services. Substance abuse treatment programs that engage ex-offenders should offer the following:
  • Respect. Drug and alcohol counselors should strive to treat each person as an individual with a unique set of positive and negative qualities. Treatment staff should respect ex-offenders' autonomy, asking what they view as their primary needs and offering help in meeting those needs. When an ex-offender resists meeting program requirements, staff should not assume that the cause is willful disobedience. Resistance may arise from a variety of sources, including fear, anxiety, ignorance, lack of social skills, or the "lessons" learned in prison. Respecting the client means working with her to locate the reason for her resistance and then helping her overcome it.
Counselors can also demonstrate respect by holding conversations with clients privately, looking at clients directly and asking, "How are you?" before launching into "business." An attractive and clean waiting area also conveys respect for clients. Program staff can demonstrate respect and cultural competence by explaining why certain questions need to be asked. For example, when asking about school and work experiences during which the client may have repeated failures, program staff should introduce the questions by stating, "In order for us to work together to find the best career path for you, I need to ask you some questions about school and work that may seem upsetting to you. Please let me know if there is a better way to ask you about this information, because that will help both of us."
  • Hope. Offenders accustomed to failure and feelings of hopelessness need contact with positive role models--people who have come through prison and substance abuse treatment and found a job. Employing program graduates as counselors is one way to offer role models; moreover, program graduates are often effective in breaking through clients' denial and cutting through manipulation. Bringing graduates in to speak to groups of participants and compiling a book of letters from graduates who benefited from vocational services are other ways of providing role models.
  • Positive incentives. Offenders need to experience achievement rather than failure. Programs should emphasize and build upon clients' small successes. This principle is in operation in many "drug courts," where judges take the time to praise the accomplishments of offenders, however small these accomplishments may seem. Some programs mark advancement through program phases with ceremonies or small tokens of achievement.
  • Clear information.Offenders need to know what they can expect from substance abuse treatment and vocational counseling and what will be expected of them. Counselors should orient clients to the process they are beginning: what the steps or stages are, how long each lasts, what happens during each stage, and what the program rules are, as well as the consequences of violating them.
  • Consistency. When ex-offenders fail to comply with program requirements, consequences under the program's control must be enforced swiftly and consistently. Offenders quickly learn whether the "system" is taking itself seriously. If there are inconsistent or delayed responses to rule violations, the rules might simply be disobeyed.
  • Compassion. Counselors should be aware that the ex-offender may be juggling many demands. Requirements laid down by the substance abuse treatment counselor may be competing with criminal justice reporting requirements (e.g., to a parole officer) or family obligations. From the ex-offender's perspective, it may seem that everyone trying to "help" her is piling on competing demands that are impossible for her to meet and that make failure inevitable. Counselors should ask the client what other requirements she faces and offer to help her master the skills to manage everything.
  • Information about the career ladder. Many ex-offenders believe that if they do obtain employment, it will be in a low-paying, "dead end" job. It is important for program staff to introduce and reinforce the concept of a career ladder. Clients need to develop a vision of increasing job skills and increasing job complexity, leading to increased pay and responsibility.
  • Assistance in transfer of skills. Often counselors overlook some of their clients' "special talents" that may have served to bring about negative outcomes in the past but that can be used in a new way when the ex-offender is clean and sober. For example, an ex-offender who was a leader of gang activity and showed management abilities (under negative circumstances) can be assisted to see that those same skills could be used to lead a work crew.
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