Supporting Offenders into Employment

Rachel Lishman - Senior Adviser - Employer Partnerships, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Rachel started her career as an English language teacher, then worked in both the private and public sectors of the immigration field for 17 years. She recently joined the Department of Corrections. Her experience includes industry skills planning, work with regulatory authorities, qualification development, and stakeholder relationship management.

Supporting Offenders into Employment (SOIE) is a three year pilot that started in October 2016, and is a collaborative effort between the Department of Corrections (Corrections) and the Ministry of Social Development (MSD). The pilot aims to address high unemployment, long-term benefit dependency and high rates of re-imprisonment among people who have spent time in prison.

Evidence shows that around 80% of people (i.e. approximately 7,000) who were reliant on a benefit before beginning a prison sentence return to benefit reliance when released. Two thirds of people released from prison receive a benefit within one month of release (Ministry of Social Development, 2016). Approximately 17,000 beneficiaries identified in the Valuation of the Benefit System 2014 had been in prison two to four times (Ministry of Social Development, 2014).

Obtaining stable and long-term employment soon after release from prison can reduce a person’s likelihood of re-offending and reduce long-term benefit dependency.

Corrections and MSD both work with people who have convictions. Corrections provides rehabilitation programmes, training, education, and employment opportunities within prison. Upon release, or for those serving sentences in the community, Corrections provides access to reintegration services and assistance with preparing for, obtaining and maintaining employment. MSD provides the same cohort with financial support and the assistance of MSD work brokers to seek employment.

The two agencies recognise that by working together, we can provide improved support to reduce barriers to employment.  Better integration of the services offered by Corrections and MSD through the SOIE pilot is expected to have benefits such as reducing the number of people with conviction histories requiring long-term benefits, and reducing their re-offending rate, thereby reducing the overall social and financial cost to New Zealand.

The pilot programme is delivered in two different workstreams. In Canterbury, two externally contracted providers, Workwise and The Salvation Army, work with up to 200 clients a year. In 10 other locations, Work and Income (MSD’s service delivery group) intensive client support managers work with up to 400 clients in total. Locations were chosen largely due to proximity to prisons and the number of people released from prison into those areas. The ten locations are: Northland, Papakura (Auckland), Waikato, East Coast, Manawatu, Whanganui, Horowhenua, Wellington, Dunedin, and Invercargill.

Corrections and Work and Income work together to identify people who could best be assisted by the service and will be released from prison within the next 10 weeks. Consideration is given to those who will be released to one of the trial locations, on parole or conditions, and who are at risk of being a Work and Income beneficiary long term.

Individuals are contacted by their Corrections case manager prior to release from prison and introduced to one of Work and Income’s intensive client support managers or to the externally contracted provider. The three parties discuss what the participant would like to achieve and the assistance they will likely need prior to and post release from prison. Provided they are committed to participating, a plan is made regarding their pathway.

If under the care of the Work and Income in-house Intensive Client Support Service, the Work and Income intensive client support manager becomes the main point of contact, providing support in the community, while the Corrections probation officer manages the parole conditions. Each Work and Income intensive client support manager has a caseload of up to 40 clients.

The SOIE pilot provides support tailored to each individual’s needs and circumstances. The assistance offered by the Work and Income intensive client support manager ranges from help with setting up bank accounts, obtaining identification, finding accommodation, and registering for health services to help with accessing a benefit while preparing to enter the workforce, and help identifying and accessing suitable education and training opportunities and finding a job. Once in employment, ongoing support is provided to help the individual maintain their position. That support can include financial assistance with work-related costs when starting employment and bridging finance to cover living costs until a first pay is received, in-work incentive payments if a person remains in employment, and providing help to obtain accommodation, access healthcare, and connect with pro-social networks to support reintegration into society.

The external service is slightly different. For those being assisted by Workwise and The Salvation Army in the Canterbury region, the service takes a multi-disciplinary approach, including mental and physical health, education and employment, reintegration and housing.

People trying to reintegrate into society and find and maintain employment on release from prison often face significant challenges. Besides the social stigma of having been in prison, many prisoners have personal challenges to overcome such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, poor numeracy and literacy, financial problems, and difficulty finding stable housing.

Many employers have a policy of not considering job applicants who have conviction histories. Most employers prefer to employ people with little or no work experience over people who have spent time in prison. A study found this to be the case among employers in the USA (Schmitt, 2010).  Anecdotal information from Corrections staff working directly with employers to place people with convictions into employment suggests this is also the case in New Zealand.  Concerns of employers include matters such as whether a person might re-offend and leave their job, whether a person has a suitable work ethic and social skills for the workplace, and the implications of possibly being publicly associated with someone with a serious criminal history or with gang affiliations. Without targeted support, such discrimination may prevent many people from finding suitable employment even if they are work-ready when they’re released from prison.

The pilot ensures wrap-around support is tailored to the individual’s needs. Support can be accessed from 10 weeks prior to release from prison. Post-release, support is provided for up to 12 months while steps are taken towards securing employment. From that date (within the12 months that employment is started), a further 12 months’ in-work support is available.

Corrections provides numeracy and literacy training, help to obtain qualifications, and opportunities to upskill through working in prison industries. However, despite this assistance, people newly released from prison still face significant challenges to obtain employment and reintegrate into the community. Taking a joined-up approach with Work and Income means the work done by Corrections in prisons to help people gain skills and become work-ready is more likely to lead to a job in the community.

Up to 63% of prisoners have literacy and numeracy levels below Level 1 on the NZQA framework. Level 1 is the standard needed to be competent with everyday life tasks. Various programmes available in prison support learners to achieve literacy competency to a Level 1 standard (Department Of Corrections, December 2016).

At present, industry training within prisons includes, but is not limited to, farming, horticulture, engineering, welding, construction, infrastructure, hospitality, barista skills, catering, distribution, plumbing, painting, machine operation, and traffic control. Some prisoners can also gain work experience in the community through Release to Work opportunities. The Release to Work programme enables some people nearing the end of a prison sentence to work in the local community prior to release. Removing barriers to obtaining and maintaining employment is key to enabling people to continue progress made in prison and participate meaningfully in the labour market and society.

Initial indications are that the two agencies and external providers working closely together is producing positive results. As at 20 September 2018, 51.8% of the clients MSD has assisted through SOIE had gained employment. Others are at various points on their pathway to reintegration and employment, having been assisted into education and training and helped with matters such as addressing health concerns.

The following case study, included in Corrections’ publication Corrections Works in March 2018, illustrates the success of the SOIE collaborative approach.  Mark* was assisted in prison by his Corrections Case Manager, Deve, and prior to and post release by his Work and Income Intensive Client Support Manager, Kay.

Mark met with Kay in the weeks before his release and got a furnished flat very soon after his release – a massive achievement as he’d been in prison nearly five years. He was able to pay for some of his move-in costs such as food and rent in advance with money provided through the trial.

He’d also been granted the Jobseeker Support benefit on release. Mark proudly passed his restricted driver’s licence – a necessary achievement as he was looking for work in construction and would need a car to get himself and his gear to work. He got a job with a construction firm and received a Transition to Work grant (financial assistance to support people into work provided by Work and Income) to help with work-related costs such as buying work clothing, buying a car and petrol, and bridging finance to get to his first pay.

Having transferred cities, Mark has been in steady employment for nine months and is living with his partner and children. He’s extremely grateful for the help and support he received, and says “It’s everything I ever wanted.”

*Not his real name

The overall outcomes expected for participants by the end of the pilot are:

  • Higher levels of employment and lower dependency on benefits
  • Reduced re-offending rates
  • Participants connecting with positive networks within their wider whānau/family or community
  • Mental health conditions identified, treated and managed
  • Alcohol and drug conditions identified, treated and managed
  • Increased engagement in education and gaining qualifications
  • Seventy five percent participating in or completing skills development or training relevant to the labour market.

At the end of April 2018, 776 people had been referred to the pilot service. Of those, 579 people were referred to Work and Income intensive client support managers, and 197 people to the external service providers.

The joined up approach to service delivery in the SOIE pilot is enabling assistance to be targeted to the needs of the most vulnerable people cared for by both Corrections and Work and Income. Because the timeframe in which services can be delivered takes into account the specific needs of people with conviction histories, service provision is able to go beyond what either department delivers separately. This enables people with high needs to be supported both financially and practically in the steps they need to take to successfully reintegrate into the community at the same time as being prepared to enter the workforce and remain in it.

Evaluation of the pilot is underway, with an impact analysis report to be completed in September 2019, final reporting due in September 2020, and follow-up reporting due in 2022.


Department Of Corrections. (December 2016). Supporting Offenders Into Employment. Practice: The New Zealand Corrections Journal, Volume 4, 42-45.

Ministry of Social Development. (2014). 2014 Benefit System Performance Report.

Ministry of Social Development. (2016). The Investment Approach, 2016 Benefit System Performance Report.

Schmitt, J. &. (2010). Ex-offenders and the Labor Market. Washington DC: Centre for Economic and Policy Research.