Employment needs post-prison: A gendered analysis of expectations, outcomes and service effectiveness

Dr Bronwyn Morrison
Principal Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Marianne Bevan
Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Jill Bowman
Principal Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Author biographies:

Bronwyn Morrison has a PhD in Criminology. She has worked in government research and evaluation roles for the last 13 years. Since joining Corrections as a Principal Research Adviser in 2015 she has undertaken projects on prisoners’ post-release experiences, family violence perpetrators, remand prisoners, and corrections officer training.

Marianne Bevan started at Corrections in May 2014, and has completed a range of research and evaluation projects related to women’s offending, the case management of women in prison, family violence offending, prisoners’ trauma exposure, and youth units. Prior to working at Corrections, she conducted research, and implemented projects on gender and security sector reform in Timor-Leste, Togo, Ghana and Liberia.

Jill Bowman has worked in Corrections’ Research and Analysis team for eight years following a variety of roles in both the private and public sectors. She volunteers at Arohata Prison, teaching quilting to women in the Drug Treatment Unit.


It is widely agreed that, irrespective of gender, prisoners experience a broad range of challenges following their release from prison. Internationally, research has conclusively shown that men and women encounter a number of common problems on exiting prison, including issues finding stable accommodation, obtaining and maintaining employment, avoiding anti-social peers, abstaining from drugs and/or alcohol, accessing health (including mental health) services and treatment, and (re)connecting with intimate partners, children, and family (Duwe, 2015; Bevan & Wehipeihana, 2015; Calverley, 2013; Flower, 2010; Petersilia, 2003; Baldry et al 2006; Visher & Travis, 2003; Travis, Solomon & Waul, 2001).

Despite these shared difficulties, studies have routinely observed important differences between men and women’s post-release experiences (Doherty et al, 2014; McIvor & Burman, 2011; Flower, 2010; Arditti & Few, 2006; McIvor, Trotter & Sheehan, 2009; Hannah-Moffat & Turnbull, 2009; Baldry, 2010). Without exception, international studies demonstrate that released female prisoners re-offend at lower levels than their male counterparts (see Spjeldnes & Goodkind, 2009). This fact holds across different jurisdictions and time periods, and is also the case in New Zealand. For example, in 2015-16, 21% of women released from prison returned to prison within 12 months of release, compared to 33% of men. Gender differences at 24 months are even more pronounced with 28% of women and 45% of men reimprisoned.[1]

Notwithstanding their lower levels of recidivism, women are often described as having more complex reintegration needs than men (see Doherty et al, 2014; Carlen and Tombs, 2006; Davies & Cook, 1999). A key area in which women are considered to be more disadvantaged relates to post-release employment. Studies have shown that female prisoners often have lower levels of educational attainment and more limited work histories than their male counterparts, and have typically endured greater economic deprivation prior to entering prison (Flower, 2010; Bachman et al, 2016; Carlen & Tombs, 2006; Spjeldnes & Goodkind, 2009). Research has further demonstrated that once inside prison, women also have fewer educational and vocational opportunities (Scroggins & O’Malley 2010; Davies & Cook,, 1999; Cho & Lalonde, 2005). It has also been argued that because crime is considered a more “normal” masculine endeavour, female prisoners also suffer greater social stigmatisation on their return to the community (Carlen and Worrall, 2004).

In several countries this recognition has led to the introduction of re-entry programmes specifically designed for women (see Scroggins and Malley, 2010). Although reintegrative programmes such as Out of Gate have been introduced in New Zealand and are used by female offenders, no female-specific services have yet been developed, and the extent to which such a development is warranted is unknown. In fact, very little research has been undertaken on either male or female prisoners’ post-release experiences in New Zealand, including employment experiences and, within this, whether any gendered differences exist (Bevan & Wehipeihana, 2015; Bowman, 2015; Gilbert & Elley, 2014).

A Department of Corrections’ post-release employment study aimed to start filling this knowledge gap. The study involved interviews with 127 prisoners up to a month prior to release, with follow up interviews conducted after three to four months post-release (n=97), and a third interview conducted 12 months after the original release date (n=38). Initial interviews were conducted between November 2015 and January 2016, with follow up interviews undertaken between February and June 2016, and then again in November 2016 to February 2017. Those interviewed were broadly representative of the released prisoner population. The first phase interviews included 43 women and 84 men, the second phase included 25 women and 72 men, and phase three involved interviews with seven women and 31 men. A greater proportion of women in the original sample (65%) identified as Māori, compared to men (48%), and overall just over half of the phase one participants were Māori.

The interviews collected information about prisoners’ education and employment experiences pre-prison, their post-release employment and/or study plans and what happened after prison, with a particular focus on employment outcomes. This article is based on information from the first two phases of interviews, and looks solely at gender differences and similarities (for a full description of the methodology and an overview of the study’s main findings see Morrison and Bowman, 2017).

This article outlines the gender similarities and differences in relation to education and employment, and considers the implications of these for service design. It concludes with an appraisal of the Offender Recruitment Consultant (ORC) service, a Corrections-run recruitment service designed specifically to help offenders secure employment, which was separately evaluated in 2017. The post-release employment study contributed to the design of the ORC service. Consequently, the service offers a good example of where “evidence meets practice”.

Life before prison

Research on re-entry has frequently demonstrated the importance of setting post-release experiences within the broader context of offenders’ lives prior to imprisonment (Duwe, 2015; Doherty et al., 2014). Understanding gendered differences in pre-prison experiences is crucial if we wish to identify whether there are gender specific needs requiring different service provision.

Education and post school activities

Within the post-release study sample there were no differences in the age at which men and women had left school, with the average leaving age for both being 14.8 years. Women, however, were far more likely to have left school with qualifications than their male counterparts, and generally recounted more positive education experiences. They were also more likely to have left school voluntarily. Men were more likely to report having been expelled from school on account of disruptive behaviour. Significant numbers of both genders reported troubled childhoods which affected their education and had ongoing implications for how they approached learning environments in prison, such as vocational training, education, and group treatment settings. For many, their school years were strongly associated with trauma, such as bullying at school or physical or sexual abuse at home:

“I got a brain injury … I went back to school but I struggled and I should have been put in a lower class, but no one picked up on that until later. By then I’d been bullied and picked on by other kids about my reading and writing.” (Sophia, a Māori woman in her 30s who had learned to read and write during her prison sentence).

Despite leaving school around the same age, there were important differences in men and women’s post-school activities. A reasonable proportion of men went directly from school into work or some form of applied study (such as an apprenticeship); the exception here was young men, who were more likely to have done little work or study since leaving school and were also more likely to have become involved in gangs either before, or soon after, leaving school. These young men were more likely to have commenced predominantly criminal lifestyles soon after leaving school. While some women had commenced work or study on leaving school, this was less prevalent, and women’s study and employment had frequently been interrupted by the arrival of new relationships and/or becoming pregnant. The narrative of “met a boy, got pregnant” was very common amongst these women. The absence of employment between school and starting a family had ongoing repercussions for women post-release, with women in the study exhibiting shorter work histories and a narrower range of vocational skills compared to men.

Employment backgrounds

Women were more likely to report having never or rarely worked, with almost a quarter of women falling into this category compared to less than a fifth of men. That said, women were also more likely to report having mostly or always worked since leaving school, with one in three women reporting relatively stable work histories compared to only one in five men. Men were more likely to have worked intermittently and often had a much broader range of work experience and vocational skills. For example, men’s work histories included: labouring, meat works, farming, mechanics, welding, and a variety of factory-based jobs. Several had worked as chefs, butchers, and truck drivers, while a few had held management positions. Amongst women, a more limited and less diverse range of employment histories was observed, mostly unskilled and poorly paid. Common roles in the employment histories of the women were hotel cleaner, bartender, mental health or disability care workers, kohanga reo assistants, retail assistants and packers at meat works or orchards. A small number had also worked as prostitutes. Importantly, even where men and women’s employment appeared to overlap (for example, working at the meat works and orchards) women’s roles were often more menial and less well paid than their male counterparts.

Pre-prison context

Men were more likely to have been working immediately prior to incarceration. In contrast, few women in the study were working prior to their imprisonment; the criminal activity which led to their imprisonment often appeared to dominate and disrupt their lives to a much greater degree. Probably linked to this point, women in the study were also more likely to report methamphetamine use and mental health problems prior to arrival in prison. Despite the fact that women reported a higher incidence of mental health and drug addiction problems, men in the study were twice as likely to be receiving a supported living benefit. While a greater proportion of women were receiving benefits prior to prison, the vast majority were receiving job seeker benefits. One fifth of women were receiving sole parent benefits; however, it was also the case that few women in the study reported having full care responsibilities for their children, with most children being already in the care of relatives or Child, Youth and Family at the time of the women’s offending and subsequent incarceration. Somewhat unexpectedly, therefore, child-care was seldom found to be a significant barrier to pre-prison employment for most of the women in this study.

Plans for life beyond prison

When asked shortly before release about their release plan, similar proportions of men and women (just under one fifth) reported having a job already organised. Men were generally more likely to be able to articulate their employment plans in specific terms (43% to 28%); however, women were more likely to state definitively that they had no intention of working post-release. Women’s main reasons for not seeking employment were child-care responsibilities, health problems or, most commonly, the need to focus on obligations associated with fulfilling their release conditions.

Men were far more likely to see obtaining employment as an immediate post-release priority and generally saw employment as a pre-requisite to getting other parts of their lives “sorted”. As Tom, a Māori male in his 30s, noted:

“I’m hoping to find a job pretty quickly, because without a job, I’m going to cause mischief … I know without a job I haven’t got enough money to pay for what I need to survive out there, so the only thing I can do is go back to gang-banging [2] … work’s the major factor for me.”

While some women also prioritised employment, most reported an array of more pressing needs and concerns which rendered work a low priority. In other words, men typically saw work as a means to get life sorted, women felt the need to get other areas of their lives sorted out before they could think about looking for work. On being asked if she planned to look for work post-release, for example, Tanya noted:

“I’ll make sure I’m settled first … I want to make sure I spend as much time as possible with [my son] before he goes back to school and just make sure I’m in the right space of mind … settle down, yeah.”


A further point of gender difference related to a sense of personal agency. Men in the study expressed a far greater level of self-determination than women, and were, at least pre-release, more optimistic about their future employment prospects:

“Like I said, it’s all on me. It’s all on the person. How much you want it. That’s how I look at things. If you’re persistent and you work towards your goals, you will eventually get there.” (Aleki, Pacific male in his 20s).

“Jobs will come and go. I’m not stressed about that … As long as you are actively looking for work, you’re going to get a job aren’t you, you know? It’s not like you’ll be unemployed forever.” (Ray, NZ European male in his 20s).

In contrast, women in the study appeared more acutely aware of the limitations that their criminal convictions and lack of education placed on their future employment prospects. This was especially true in situations when women’s previous employment experience was limited to carer, retail, or hospitality work:

“There’s not much I can do now, because I’ve got a criminal record. The dream is I wanted to be a bartender … but it’s till work and I’ve got over fifty dishonesty charges against my name, so it’s pretty hard for me to get a job.” (Dallas, a Māori woman in her 30s who left school at age 11).

“How are we meant to get a job when they aren’t going to accept us with these criminal histories? … It’s a waste of time really if I’m just going to get shut off.” (Janet, a Māori woman in her 20s, with a limited employment history).

Post-release employment experiences

Although similar proportions of men and women when interviewed in prison said they had a job already organised for post-release, men were more likely to be working at the time of their second interview, and were twice as likely to have worked at all since leaving prison. At the time of the second interview, just under a third of the men were currently working compared to a fifth of the women. Men were more likely to have retained the position they had prior to imprisonment or continued working in the same type of occupation. As was the case pre-prison, men were working in a much greater variety of roles post-release (examples included: carpentry, butchery, window installation, plastering and sanding, truck driving, mechanics, and engineering roles). Women had worked in hospitality roles (typically cafes, restaurants or bar work), cleaning, fruit picking, and packing. Several women had also returned to prostitution post-release. Men were more likely to be in full time work, and most were earning more than the women in the study. Women were more likely to be part time or on casual contracts, where weekly hours of employment were unpredictable and often weather- or demand-dependent.

Barriers to employment

Men and women experienced similar barriers to employment, including their criminal record, trying to fit work around prison release conditions, or simply an overwhelming myriad of “things to do” to re-establish their lives. Interestingly, no women interviewed at stage two identified child-care responsibilities as an employment barrier, although several men in the study did. Women were more likely to mention geographical distance to employment opportunities as a problem, and the need to balance earning potential against travel costs. Men were more likely to identify lack of stable accommodation, food, and clothing as problems, a lack of driver licence, concerns about stand-down periods if their employment ceased, and drug testing at work as barriers. Several men acknowledged they needed to weigh up the potential pro-social benefits of legitimate employment with the fact that they could earn more money through “illegitimate” means. Finally, despite a greater prevalence of mental health issues pre-prison amongst women, it was typically men who mentioned that this detrimentally affected their ability to obtain and maintain employment following release.

Finding work

Women who were looking for work tended to report less success than men in finding work. With most having limited employment histories, few women had existing employment networks to leverage for opportunities. Women were consequently more likely to apply for jobs through formal application processes, and, consequently having to disclose convictions prior to meeting prospective employers. As a result, perhaps not surprisingly, few women found employment through these formal applications. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to have friends, family or previous employers willing to take them on, which meant fewer needed to formally apply or be interviewed for roles. In situations where formal recruitment procedures were followed, several reported that interviews had “not gone well”:

“As soon as you say you had something on your criminal history, like, ‘Nah’ … then as soon as they ask you, ‘Have you been to prison?’ It’s just shut down. They don’t want you, they don’t trust you.” (Barry, NZ European dishonesty offender in his early 20s).

Participants of both genders, although more typically men, reported wanting more help to broker employment, and noted the value of having a job organised prior to release. Many talked about wanting a case management-style service in which an individual worked with them in prison and beyond to find and maintain appropriate work, as well as helping individuals manage competing demands in the first few months post-release.[3]

Employment and re-offending

In terms of re-offending and employment, while no women working at the phase two interviews had re-offended, half of the men who were working were facing new charges. For some men, their employment appeared to have indirectly contributed to re-offending: the onset of a steady income tempted some to purchase drugs and alcohol, or a vehicle with which they engaged in high risk activities such as “drifting”. For others, working seemed to generate stress and anxiety, which reportedly contributed to drug and alcohol abuse. Importantly, no women who worked post-release revealed any link between offending and employment; rather for women, employment was more likely to be associated with desistance. What such findings reveal is that employment is not always a protective factor against re-offending in the absence of other supports. It was evident that many people needed continuing support to maintain employment in order to capitalise on the positive impacts employment can have on preventing re-offending. On the basis of the above findings, it may be that men are more in need of this type of in-work support than women.

Key implications for service design

Returning to the question of whether gender-specific reintegration services are needed in New Zealand, in respect of post-release employment needs, the current study does not provide strong evidence for gender-specific services; however, it does indicate that standard services could be made more responsive to the different needs of men and women. Certainly, men and women share many common problems associated with obtaining employment following a period of incarceration; however, women generally have shorter work histories, less breadth in their employment experience, and less access to existing employment networks to leverage for opportunities. Women are more likely to rely on formal recruitment processes in the first instance, but men may struggle more at the interview stage, especially in situations where disclosure of conviction histories is likely to arise. While men may need to access employment assistance soon after release, women may require assistance further down the road, usually after other reintegration foundations are in place. Once in employment, men, in particular, are likely to need help to maintain employment and broader support to ensure that employment strengthens their long-term desistance from crime.

Irrespective of gender, the post-release study found that people wanted a service which invested in them as individuals. They wanted continuity of help; from assistance to find employment placements pre-release, brokering contracts and employment conditions once employment was found, and ongoing support and encouragement to maintain employment thereafter. When “things fell over”, they wanted someone to help them to get up and try again.

Evidence to practice: This Way For Work

In response to these needs, the Department introduced the “This Way For Work” initiative in late 2016. This included the implementation of the Department’s own offender recruitment service, which included appointing 13 “Offender Recruitment Consultants” (ORCs). ORCs are Corrections’ employees who help released prisoners and offenders serving community sentences to find work. ORCs may start working with offenders in prison, and then continue to work with offenders once they transition to the community. For those who are not “work ready”, ORCs work with a variety of other internal and externally-contracted parties to help people get motivated and ready to work (for example through assisting with driver licencing, CV and job interview preparation, obtaining forklift licences and/or safety standard qualifications). ORCs also broker employment between offenders and potential employers, and assist offenders throughout the recruitment process. Once employment is obtained, ORC clients can also access on-going in-work support to help sustain employment.

Evaluated in mid-2017, the service was found to be highly successful. At the time of writing (May 2018), the service had placed over 1,000 Corrections jobseekers in employment (approximately seven percent of those placed in employment were women). In line with the post-release study findings, the evaluation identified a number of factors crucial to the success of the initiative. These are briefly detailed below.

Individualised and flexible delivery

A key reason for the success of the ORC service was the provision of individually-tailored support. Considerable variance was evident in the level of employment need amongst offenders. Some, such as those with child sex offences, or those who had limited employment experiences, took more time and effort to prepare for placement, and successfully place. There were some unique challenges apparent when placing women into employment, as women did not always have the required experience or a desire to work in some of the industries most likely to recruit through ORCs (such as construction). Some of the areas women wanted work in (e.g., hairdressing) could take longer to find suitable placements. Despite such challenges, the service worked well because ORCs had the flexibility to tailor the level of service to these individual needs. ORCs worked closely with offenders to identify their work preferences and employment possibilities, and to source jobs that were a good “fit”[4]. This increased the likelihood that employment was sustainable

Brokering employment overcome significant employment barriers

Having the same person engage with both offenders and employers made the process of finding employment and suitable employees significantly easier for both parties. That ORCs actively sought out employers enabled new, often unlisted, work opportunities to be identified. For offenders, having ORCs act as a go-between ensured that criminal records were fully disclosed by a third party in advance, removing a significant source of anxiety for offenders when they met prospective employers for the first time.

Helping offenders to be “work ready” was vital

The evaluation found that the most successful placements occurred when ORCS engaged with offenders who were “work ready”. This meant that offenders had: a quality CV if this was needed; the right licences; reliable transport options; completed sentence requirements (e.g., rehabilitation programmes); “soft skills” needed to function in the workplace, such as time management and communication skills; and genuine motivation and desire to work. The ORC service worked particularly well when ORCs leveraged the array of auxiliary support services already in place (for example, employment support officers based in probation offices) to assist offenders to become work ready. The evaluation found being “work ready” increased the likelihood that employment would be sustainable, and increased employer satisfaction with job seekers. This aspect of service design also meant that female offenders are given the opportunity to receive assistance to get their CVs and covering letters prepared, and receive the support needed to develop their motivation to work later on in their sentence when other foundations are in place.

Employment services work best when they are linked to wider reintegration support services

A key finding of the post-release study was that employment tends to be associated with desistance, but not invariably; employment generally aids in achieving the stability needed to desist from crime, but instances were observed where specific stresses associated with employment appeared to be a factor in re-offending. Further, the evaluation found that employment could quickly be de-railed by problems such as poor relationships, renewed substance abuse, and lack of housing. Consequently, ongoing support with such broader issues was essential to help offenders manage these difficulties, and thereby maintain employment. ORCs provided this support in a range of ways: through checking in with employers and offenders to ensure offenders were turning up, helping with workplace disputes or negotiations with employers (for example about pay rises, leave entitlements), and, in some cases, assisting people to find accommodation or transport as issues arose.

As the ORC service matures it will be important to consider how it can optimally function alongside existing employment-related services and more general reintegration services, including new services, such as Guided Release.


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[1] Based on releases in the 2014/15 fiscal year (Department of Corrections 2017)

[2] Gang-banging here referred to committing crime as part of organised gang activities. For this offender such activities included burglaries and the use of intimidation and/or violence to extract outstanding debts owed to the gang from individuals.

[3] The Department now have a number of services which assist prisoners to set up work prior to release. These services include Guided Release for those serving sentences of two years or more, and the Offender Recruitment (ORC) service open to both prisoners nearing release and offenders in the community whether post-release or serving community sentences. This service is discussed in more detail below.

[4] Recently-held education “expos” at each of the women’s prisons have sought to promote awareness of, and readiness for, a much broader range of employment options for women.