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Building Toolkit on Cultural Competence and Hiring Ex Prisoners, Fortune Society, 2011

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EMPLOYING
YOUR MISSION

Building Cultural Competence in Reentry Service Agencies
Through the Hiring of Individuals Who Are Formerly
Incarcerated and/or in Recovery

TABLE OF CONTENTS
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Summary
Introductory Letter
Section I: Research Literature Review
Section II: Case Study–How The Fortune Society Builds Cultural Competence Through Its Hiring
and Management Practices
Section III: Applying The Fortune Society’s Cultural Competence Hiring Strategies to Other
Organizations–The Thames Reach Story
Section IV: Developing Cultural Competence Through Hiring and Development Practices: Getting
Started Today
Conclusion
References

SUMMARY
This toolkit addresses several interrelated issues regarding the successful reentry into society of formerly incarcerated
men and women. First, there is a reentry crisis of unparalleled proportion currently facing communities in the United
States. Because incarceration both profoundly impacts those who experience it and disproportionately affects lowincome people of color, the response to it needs to be culturally competent across a spectrum of issues. Second, there is an
important employment component to individuals’ reentry experience. While stable employment is critical to the successful
reintegration into society of those returning home, the formerly incarcerated nonetheless confront significant barriers to
employment, including discrimination based on their conviction records. Finally –and this is the core of this toolkit– one
way to address both of these issues is to build “cultural competence” within reentry services by hiring formerly incarcerated
men and women to reflect the experiences and realities of the reentry population and provide services more effectively.

Section I of this toolkit reviews the relevant research literature. For contextual background, we will briefly discuss the
reentry crisis, employment barriers that the formerly incarcerated face, and the current state of the law on measures to
protect them from job discrimination. Next, we will explore the meaning of “cultural competence.”1 That will be followed
by a review of a diverse body of literature relevant to the central issue of this toolkit - the unique benefits and challenges
afforded to reentry agencies when they hire people with histories of incarceration and other life experiences shared by the
reentry population.
In Section II, this toolkit presents a case study of the New York City-based reentry agency, The Fortune Society, and
its experience as a racially and ethnically diverse agency whose management and staff often share the life experiences
and histories of its clients. At Fortune, 80% of its employees are people of color and 70% have histories of incarceration,
substance abuse and/or homelessness.

Section III provides a brief case study of Thames Reach, a London-based services provider for the homeless, which came
away from a 2003 visit to The Fortune Society with the conviction that it needed to embrace Fortune’s practice of hiring
services users, both to increase its effectiveness as an agency and because it was the right thing to do. We will review their
positive experience adopting Fortune’s culturally competent hiring model.
Finally, in Section IV, this toolkit will offer some promising practices and lessons learned about how to develop a
culturally competent workforce in a reentry agency. Recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all approach, Section IV will focus
on principles that have general application and can be adapted to best serve the needs of each individual agency.
1	

As it is beyond the scope of this toolkit to provide a comprehensive primer on building cultural competence, we limit our discussion to arriving at a
shared understanding of the term and identifying its benefits.

This project was supported by Grant No. 2009-D1-BX-K016 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the
Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not represent the official position or
policies of the United States Department of Justice.

1

LETTER OF INTRODUCTION
Dear Colleagues,

The Fortune Society and the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice are pleased to present this
toolkit, Employing Your Mission: Building Cultural Competence in Reentry Service Agencies Through the Hiring of Individuals
who are Formerly Incarcerated and/or In Recovery. It has been developed for organizations that provide services to men and
women with histories of incarceration and other related life experiences of the reentry population. The unprecedented
number of men and women returning home from correctional facilities represents important challenges to communitybased service providers. Adopting culturally competent hiring practices helps to address these challenges by providing job
opportunities and skill development to formerly incarcerated men and women and enhancing service delivery capabilities
by hiring staff with experiential knowledge. This toolkit shares promising practices for building cultural competence
through hiring and developing individuals with life histories similar to the reentry client population.
In Fall 2009, The Fortune Society and Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, funded by
the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, partnered to create materials to provide skill development
opportunities for the reentry field. This toolkit highlights the experience of The Fortune Society, a racially and ethnically
diverse agency whose management and staff largely share the life experiences and histories of its clients. It is set in a
diverse body of academic literature addressing the relationship between reentry and employment and the unique benefits
and challenges afforded to reentry agencies when they hire people with histories of incarceration and/or substance use.
This collaboration between complementary sets of expertise in reentry – that of a direct service provider and a college
of criminal justice – was further enriched by contributions from the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict
Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University.

This toolkit focuses on helping organizations develop culturally competent hiring practices. It begins with an overview
of the literature documenting the reentry crisis, employment barriers the formerly incarcerated face, and the current
state of the law on measures to protect them from job discrimination. The toolkit then provides a detailed summary of
relevant scholarly work on culturally competent hiring practices and the impact they have on the organization, its staff,
and its clients. Following the review of relevant literature, the toolkit details The Fortune Society’s experience of being a
racially and ethnically diverse agency whose management and staff largely share the life experiences and histories of its
clients. Readers will learn about Fortune’s hiring philosophy and the strategies employed to identify, nurture, and develop
employees who closely mirror the life experiences, challenges, and limited work histories of their clients. The toolkit
culminates with key lessons and steps to help other organizations as they work to establish or sustain culturally competent
hiring practices or begin to consider adopting this strategy.
Implementing culturally competent hiring practices at a reentry organization yields numerous benefits; however, it is
not without its challenges. As you will see, The Fortune Society’s hiring practice and strategies have evolved – and continue
to evolve – over the course of more than 40 years. A great deal of care, patience, and dedication has gone into creating staff
development strategies. However, this work has paid off tremendously for Fortune, its staff, and its clients. The Fortune
Society has received numerous awards for its culturally competent service provision, including recognition from the
National Institute of Justice and the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
We hope the information presented in this toolkit, including The Fortune Society’s case study, will provide guidance
and encouragement to organizations that are considering culturally competent hiring practices as well as those looking to
further develop their existing practice in doing so. We welcome you to contact The Fortune Society for more information.
Sincerely,

JoAnne Page 				
President and CEO
	
The Fortune Society
	

Jeremy Travis
President
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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Section I: Research Literature
Review

relationship test” allowing government agencies to argue
that the criminal conviction has a bearing on the job
in question (Petersilia 2003, Legal Action Center 2004,
updated 2009).

Background–The Reentry Crisis

In addition, there is a great deal of de facto
discrimination against persons with arrest and criminal
conviction histories, and, given the disproportionate
number of the formerly incarcerated who are persons
of color, this discrimination is exacerbated by racial and
ethnic discrimination. Survey results show that employers
are much more reluctant to hire the formerly incarcerated
than any other group of disadvantaged workers and view
them as lacking reliability and trustworthiness (Holzer,
Raphael & Stoll 2002, Holzer 1996). In a 2005 study of black,
Latino and white male job-seekers, researchers Pager and
Western (2005) found a statistically significant degree
of discrimination against those with criminal conviction
records, despite having controlled for education, experience,
age and appearance. Moreover, the discrimination against
black and Latino men with criminal conviction records was
worse than that against whites with similar records, and it
was worse for blacks than Latinos.

Each year approximately 735,000 persons are being
released from prisons (West, Sabol & Cooper 2010) and
nearly nine million more from jails (Beck 2006), an
unprecedented number of people returning home. For
most, the reentry process—that is, the process by which
formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into
and are included within their communities and become
productive, law-abiding members of society (Maruna &
LeBel 2003, Braithwaite & Braithwaite 2001)—is fraught
with difficulties. In disproportionate numbers, the formerly
incarcerated are poor and nonwhite, have physical and/
or mental disabilities, have substance abuse problems, are
undereducated, lack vocational skills or job experience, and/
or have unstable housing; and for many, these problems
co-occur (Black & Cho 2004, Petersilia 2003, Report of the
Reentry Policy Council 2003).

Moreover, the formerly incarcerated return home
to communities marked by poverty, high unemployment
and crime, and an inadequate number of effective
comprehensive reentry programs to address their complex
needs (Petersilia 2003, Report of the Reentry Policy Council
2003). The recidivism rates are high. According to one oftcited national study, approximately two out of every three
persons released are re-arrested within three years, and
slightly more than half are re-incarcerated (Langan & Levin
2002). The public safety and fiscal costs are grave, as is the
tragedy of so many lives in crisis.

Antidiscrimination Measures

No federal law expressly prohibits job discrimination
against people with arrest or criminal conviction
histories. However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
which prohibits job discrimination on the basis of race,
color, gender, national origin or religion, does provide
some protection under its “disparate impact” analysis.
The “disparate impact” analysis, a product of judicial
interpretation, prohibits employment practices that while
on their face do not appear to target a racial or other
protected group, in operation exclude a disproportionate
percentage of racial or ethnic minorities or members of
another protected group. In one landmark decision1, a
federal appeals court held that an employment policy that
excluded all applicants with criminal convictions, other
than traffic offenses, violated Title VII because it had a
disparate impact on African Americans (who, given their
disproportionate representation in the criminal justice
system, were excluded at 2.5 times the rate at which white
applicants were) and that impact was not justified by any
business necessity.

Importance of and Barriers to Employment

In the “what works” literature of reentry, meaningful
employment is consistently demonstrated to be one of the
strongest pathways to desistance from crime and successful
reentry (Petersilia 2003; Visher & Travis 2003; Uggen 2000).
Employment allows formerly incarcerated persons to take
care of themselves and their families, develop valuable life
skills, and strengthen self-esteem and social connectedness
(Petersilia 2003). Unfortunately, the reentry population
faces significant personal and structural barriers to
employment. On top of the above-described challenges (e.g.,
widespread lack of job skills and experience and reentry into
communities with weak connections to stable employment
opportunities (Petersilia 2003)), the formerly incarcerated
confront two serious types of employment discrimination:
de jure, or legally sanctioned discrimination, and de facto, or
impermissible discrimination that nonetheless exists.
As to de jure discrimination, a myriad of state
laws exist that ban the licensing and/or hiring of the
previously incarcerated in specific services-related areas
of employment such as child care, health care, barbers
and beauticians, education, security and/or real estate
(Petersilia 2003; Legal Action Center 2004, updated 2009).
Many states also have laws that deny public employment
to the formerly incarcerated, while others impose a “direct

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
(EEOC), charged with enforcing Title VII, has issued
guidelines to ward against employment policies that could
have a disparate impact on a statutorily protected group.
Given the disproportionate number of people of color
affected by the criminal justice system, the EEOC guidelines
recommend that with respect to job applicants with
criminal conviction records, employers make individualized
decisions and assess whether or not a business-related
rationale exists to reject the applicant based on the
following three factors: 1) the nature and gravity of the

1	

3

Green v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Company, 523 F.2d 1290 (8th Cir.
1975).

»»

offense; 2) the time that has elapsed since the conviction
and/or completion of sentence; and 3) the nature of the job
held or sought (EEOC Compliance Manual 2006).

»»
»»

While Title VII is binding on employers in all 50
states and the District of Columbia, historically, the law’s
enforcement has had little bite. It has been difficult to
mount disparate impact challenges, as evidentiary proof of
a disparate impact is hard to come by and courts generally
give deference to the job-related or public safety rationales
that employers invoke (Simonson 2006). Recently, however,
the EEOC, as part of the E-Race initiative (Eradicating
Racism and Colorism From Employment), is reemphasizing
that blanket exclusions of people with criminal conviction
histories may be unlawful under Title VII’s disparate impact
analysis2. The EEOC is currently focusing on employers’
routine use of criminal background checks3, as are some
state and local governments.4

»»
»»
»»
»»
»»

At the state level, few states have express
antidiscrimination protections. According to a state-bystate analysis conducted by the Legal Action Center (2004,
updated 2009), 34 states have no standards to regulate
the use of criminal conviction records in hiring decisions
made by public employers. In 42 states and the District
of Columbia, there are no standards to regulate such use
by private employers.5 As of 2009, only eight states have
enacted laws protecting the formerly incarcerated from
job discrimination by private employers - Connecticut,
Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts (for certain misdemeanors),
Montana, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin. Most of
these laws require that a decision to deny a job due to a
criminal conviction record be based on a business necessity
or public safety concern.

New York’s Article 23A Law, considered to be the
most progressive of these laws (Simonson 2006, O’Brien
& Darrow 2008), merits brief examination as a thoughtful
and balanced way to evaluate a person’s background in the
context of the job applied for. Article 23A forbids a blanket
ban against hiring individuals with criminal conviction
records and requires that employers engage in an
individualized and contextual evaluation based
on the following eight factors:
2	

3	
4	

5	

See http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/initiatives/e-race/goals.cfm
(retrieved on November 15, 2010).
See EEOC v. Freeman Cos., No. 09-CV-02573 (D. Md.).
A new development at the state and local level, labeled the “ban
the box” movement, is the enactment of laws to prohibit employers
from requesting criminal conviction information on job application
forms or running background checks before interviewing qualified
applicants. A total of six states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii,
Massachusetts, Minnesota , and New Mexico) and about two dozen
cities and/or counties have enacted such laws. See generally, the
National Employment Law Project website: http://www.nelp.org/
index.php/content/content_issues/category/criminal_records_and_
employment/ (retrieved on November 20, 2010).
37 states and the District of Columbia do not have laws to prohibit
employers from asking about and using evidence of arrests in
making job decisions, even though an arrest is not proof of criminal
conduct. In 10 states all employers are prohibited from considering
arrests, and in three states, only some employers are prohibited from
considering arrests

The public policy of the state to encourage the
employment of formerly incarcerated people;
The specific duties of the job or license;
The bearing, if any, that the criminal conviction has
on the fitness or ability of the applicant to perform
one or more duties;
The time that has elapsed since the offense or
completion of sentence;
The age of the person at the time of the offence;
The seriousness of the crime;
The information produced by the applicant, or on
his/her behalf, regarding rehabilitation and good
conduct, including a certificate of good conduct or
relief from civil disabilities; and
Any legitimate interest of the employer in
protecting property or safety and welfare of specific
individuals or the general public (NY Corrections
Law §753-755).

Increased Push for Culturally Competent
Reentry Agencies

With minority Americans expected to reach 47% of the
population by 2050 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1996), blacks
and Latinos currently comprising a disproportionate two
thirds of the prison population, and disparities existing
in access to effective services, it is important for human
services and reentry agencies to provide services in a
culturally competent manner (Brach & Fraser 2000, Primm,
Osher & Gomez 2005). Federal agencies that fund reentry
programs, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration (SAMHSA), Center for Substance
Abuse Treatment (CSAT), and Center for Substance Abuse
Prevention (CSAP) of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services (DHHHS), expressly make evidence of
cultural competence a criterion for eligibility to receive
program grants.6

The definition of cultural competence commonly
accepted within the human services fields and the federal
agencies that support reentry efforts derives from the
work of Cross et al., who defined it as “a set of congruent
behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a
system, agency or among professionals and enable that
system, agency or those professions to work effectively in
cross-cultural situations” (Cross et al. 1989:28; see also DHHS
Goal 6 Workgroup 1998). The word “culture”—defined as
“the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes the
thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values
and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious or social group”
(Cross et al. 1989:28)—is used to communicate that culture
matters when delivering services. It matters as to
“whether people even seek help…what types of help they seek,
what coping styles and social supports they have, and how
much stigma they attach to [their conditions]” (DHHS
OSG 2001). The word “competence” is used to signal a
capacity to function effectively: the point of being able to
6	

4

See, e.g., DHHS SAMHSA Request for Applications (RFA) No.: SP-10003; DHHS SAMHSA RFA No.: TI-10-007; DHHS SAMHSA and CSAT
RFA No.: TI-10-006; and DHHS SAMHSA RFA No.: TI-10-012.

governance of the organization. Concerning the clients
more directly, these five elements should be evident in the
design, implementation, and evaluation of services; in the
organization’s infrastructure, including resource allocation
and the creation of a welcoming and accessible physical
environment; in its communications, both within the agency
and with clients and the community; and in the hiring and
development of a culturally diverse workforce (Cross et al.
1989; DHHS HRSA 2002).

incorporate multiple behaviors, skills, life experiences, and
cultural knowledge is to work effectively in diverse settings
to produce better outcomes for clients (Primm, Osher &
Gomez 2005, Brach & Fraser 2000, HSRA 2001, SAMHSA TIP
No. 46).

Cultural competence is a developmental process that
evolves over an extended period of time and has multiple
stages (Cross et al. 1989, Brach & Fraser 2000). According to
Cross et al. (1989), the following five elements are essential
to an agency developing cultural competence:
»»
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»»
»»
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Cultural Competence for Agencies
Includes Hiring Those Who Share Clients’
Life Experiences

Valuing diversity, and the diversity within diversity;
Having the capacity for cultural self-assessment (i.e.,
recognition of your own culture before you learn
about your clients’);
Being conscious of the dynamics inherent when
cultures interact (e.g., mistrust based on history
of discrimination or tension from differences in
communication styles);
Acquiring institutionalized cultural knowledge
about the community served; and
Developing adaptations to service delivery models
that reflect an understanding of cultural diversity
and the realities of the communities served.

Increasingly, those who fund reentry programs expect
an agency’s cultural competence practices to include hiring
a diverse workforce that reflects the client population. One
aspect of SAMHSA’s guidelines for assessing an agency’s
cultural competence is “staffing the initiative with people
who are familiar with or who are themselves members of the
population/community.”7 With respect to hiring counselors
to service the formerly incarcerated, SAMHSA Treatment
Improvement Protocol (TIP) No. 44 (2005) recommends that
reentry agencies train and hire people in recovery, including
from within the client population, because the “credibility”
that such staff would have with the clients and their ability

These five elements should be manifested system-wide
at every core function of an organization. This includes
policymaking, goal setting, and the administration or

7	

5

SAMHSA Guidelines for Assessing Cultural Competence (2010),
retrieved on October 30, 2010, from: http://www.samhsa.gov/
Grants/guide_culture.aspx.

to be inspiring role models “can’t be underestimated.”
SAMHSA TIP No. 44 asserts that the formerly incarcerated
need staff who can build their self-esteem and give them
hope, lack “negative counselor attitudes” (that is, a belief in
the poor prognosis of clients or a reluctance to work with
them), will not be easily manipulated, and understand that
relapses will happen from time to time. Based on these
client needs, special attention should be paid to hiring peers
as counselors (2005).

sociology, and the self-help movement also supports the
proposition that the hiring of people with histories of
incarceration–and substance abuse and/or mental illness–is
an effective practice for agencies that provide services to the
reentry population. We include research on hiring persons
with histories of substance abuse and mental illness for two
reasons. First, the problems of substance abuse and mental
illness disproportionately impact the reentry population.
Indeed, three out of every four persons released from prison
have a substance abuse problem (Report of the Reentry
Policy Council 2003). Accordingly, literature on the benefits
to hiring people with those histories is highly relevant to
reentry agencies. Second, for both the formerly incarcerated
and those with histories of substance abuse, as we shall
discuss below, the process by which they exit from their
deviant pasts and adopt new identities and orientations
toward helping others with the same problems appears
to be remarkably similar. This transformation process
contributes significantly to making these individuals
credible and powerful role models and valuable employees.

Research on Positive Impact of Cultural
Competence Practices and Hiring

Empirical studies exist, albeit still limited in scope, that
show a positive relationship between hiring practices (and
other strategies that support cultural competence) and
improved client/patient outcomes.
Researchers Brach and Frazer (2000), for example,
found the following benefits of recruiting and retaining
culturally diverse staff:
»»

»»
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Communications, rapport, trust, adherence to
treatments, and client/patient satisfaction and
outcomes were improved when the clients/patients
were served by professionals of the same racial/
ethnic background (see also Tarn et al. 2005);
The presence of a diverse staff increased the user
friendliness experienced by the community served,
thus impacting access to care; and
There was less discrimination —based on control
group studies—against minority clients/patients on
the part of minority staff.

The Theoretical Framework: The Benefits of
Employing the “Professional Ex-”

Engaging individuals further along in their own
recoveries to help others with the same or similar
difficulties is an enduring approach that Alcoholics
Anonymous (AA) adopted in 1935, spurring a widespread
movement of other 12-step and mutual-help organizations
dedicated to serving people with addictions, illnesses, and
behavioral problems (Riessman 1965; 1990; Gartner &
Riessman 1984). Influenced by the AA model, agencies and
treatment centers began to actively employ people further
along in their recoveries to provide services to clients. This
development, labeled the “professional ex-” movement by
some, especially those in the substance abuse field (Brown
1991a; Brown 1991b), and the “helper therapy principle” by
others (Riessman 1965), impacted the reentry field as well.

As relevant to reentry clients with HIV/AIDS, an
assessment of publicly funded HIV/AIDS programs in
Massachusetts reported numerous benefits achieved from
hiring peer employees with HIV/AIDS, including:
»»

Better outreach to clients and improved access to
services;
»» Improved client knowledge and adherence to
treatment and services;
»» Improved agency/client relationship and agency
image;
»» Increased agency responsiveness to clients’ needs;
and
»» Stronger service and case management teams
(Rajabiun, Abridge & Tobias 2006).8
In addition to the cultural competence literature,
research from the fields of criminology, psychology,
8	

Criminologist Donald Cressey (1955; 1965) theorized
that the most effective mechanism for rehabilitating those
being released from prison would be to employ formerly
incarcerated persons further along in their reentry process
to lead service agencies expressly formed to support
reintegration. The implicit assumption is that those who
are further along in the reentry process and have adopted
prosocial values—i.e., adherence to communal norms (Clark
& Jordan 2002; De Groot & Steg 2009)—can serve as both
“agents of change” (e.g., role model and mentor) for others
and “targets of change” for themselves. The relationship is
mutually beneficial in that through service to others, the
mentors’ prosocial orientations would be reinforced, and
their knowledge about crime and incarceration would
facilitate rapport with clients (Cressey 1955; 1965).

An exhaustive review of empirical studies, regarding such other
cultural competence strategies as cultural competence training and
racial/ethnic concordance in service models, correlated positively
with improvements in provider knowledge, and for the clients,
with increases in intake, program completion, and knowledge and
satisfaction (Fortier & Bishop 2004). With respect to the impact
of a cultural competence training model that familiarizes mental
health counselors with “incarceration culture” or the “inmate code,”
researchers found a reduced reluctance on the part of the counselors
to service people with histories of mental health problems and
incarceration, greater client trust in staff and involvement in
treatment, and a reduced number of incidents of disruption by
clients (Rotter et al. 2006).

6

Criminologist Herbert Sigurdson (1969) echoed
Cressey’s work. Sigurdson argues that the services needed
(e.g., job training and placement, counseling, mentoring,
arranging services) do not require advanced degrees, and
the formerly incarcerated could be trained to provide those
services because they have “excellent credentials” from

having lived through the similar experiences. In this context,
“knowledge [serves] as a resource rather than a liability”
(p.427). Finally, these professional roles for the formerly
incarcerated reinforce prosocial values and make them
positive role models for clients and the community at large.

exit change for many who successfully desist from crime
is the development of desires to give back to others (LeBel,
Burnett, Maruna & Bushway 2008, Maruna 2001).

The process that Ebaugh and Brown describe also
applies to the formerly incarcerated. Studies of formerly
incarcerated men and women who desist from crime reveal
that they undergo “cognitive shifts” that then facilitate
their taking advantage of elements in their environments
as “hooks for change” toward adopting new prosocial selfimages (Giordano, Cernkovich and Rudolph 2002; see also,
LeBel, Burnett, Maruna & Bushway 2008). The most salient
cognitive shifts are: an openness to and desire for change;
having hope and future goals; accepting responsibility for
their part in their pasts; an ability to envision a replacement
prosocial self to supplant the marginal one to be left behind;
and loss of meaning and relevance of the old identity as
a deviant person (Giordano, Cernkovich & Rudolph 2002,
LeBel, Burnett, Maruna & Bushway 2008). Another role-

for example, concluded that a critical factor in successful
reentry was having similarly situated staff members who
could serve as powerful and credible role models that
the clients could identify and bond with, learn from, and be
inspired by. This effect was particularly strong if the staff
members came from the same neighborhoods as the clients.

This change process in the formerly incarcerated
is intrinsically a social transformation. That is, the new
Two decades later, sociologist Helen Ebaugh (1988)
identity is the result of a dynamic interplay between the
augmented Sigurdson’s work by disentangling the process
cognitive shifts identified above and social interactions that
through which people “exit” from a role that is central to
involve adhering to norms and/or prosocial behaviors (e.g.,
their identity and establish a new “master role.” According to participating in a 12-step group, being open to mentoring
Ebaugh there are four stages of role exit:
by another, or the parenting of children) (Giordano,
Cernkovich & Rudolph 2002). This dynamic interplay
»» The individual begins to doubt his or her
also occurs in reentry programs staffed by formerly
commitment to the central role (e.g., being an
incarcerated counselors. In giving feedback to clients
alcoholic, a criminal, a nun, a prostitute).
about their recovery/reentry progress, the peer counselors
»» The individual seeks out alternatives to the role,
help clients internalize new conceptions of themselves as
imagines a new life, engages in role-playing, and
“success stories” and inspire them to participate in prosocial
forms new social ties consistent with the emerging
behaviors, such as running a group meeting or being
new identity.
supportive to newer clients (Maruna et al. 2004).
»» The individual reduces the cognitive conflict
between the new and old self-images and mobilizes
The above research suggests that when identifying
the resources necessary–emotional, social and/or
potential candidates for reentry work, it is crucial to look
economic–to adopt the new one.
for evidence of openness to change, hope and future goals,
»» The individual deals with the residuals of his past
acceptance of one’s part in one’s past, a new self-conception
role, as in deciding how to present himself to the
as a prosocial person, and social involvement in some
world.
activity that constitutes a “gateway to conforming others” or
“ forays into more prosocial territory” (Giordano, Cernkovich
Role exit typically involves a radical transformation of
& Rudolph 2002: 1055–1056). However, are the benefits
identity and adoption of a new “master role” that becomes
of hiring people with histories of incarceration worth
the priority in a person’s life. The former role, however, is
the effort involved in carefully screening candidates for
never quite abandoned, and lingering aspects carry over
evidence of these cognitive shifts and emergent self-image?
into the new identity. For those with a prior deviant identity,
Research suggests these efforts are strongly beneficial. We
this lingering can facilitate, rather than inhibit, the role
summarize these findings next.
exit (Brown 1991a). For example, in the case of persons
exiting from histories of substance abuse and adopting
Benefits to Clients of Hiring People with
new prosocial master roles as substance abuse counselors,
Shared Life Experiences
their experiences with addiction and recovery “provide their
Regardless of the program setting, a strong bond forms
experiential and professional legitimacy among patients, the
between clients and staff with shared life experiences (or
community, and other professionals….” (Brown 1991a: 226,
between clients and peer-clients further along in their
emphasis in original). The “experiential knowledge”–the
respective recoveries/reentry) and acts as a significant
information and insights from personal experience living
catalyst for change in the clients (Hutchinson 2006; Soward,
with and recovering from a disease–forms “the basis of
O’Boyle & Weissman 2006; Richie 2001; Boschee & Jones
authority” for a new identity as a helper to others with the
2000; Davidson et al., 1999; Brown 1991b).9 Richie’s (2001)
same problems (Borkman et al. 1997).
study on the reentry needs of formerly incarcerated women,

Clients derive multiple benefits from having credible
role models and mentors with deep experiential knowledge

9	

7

As noted before, we include the related research on the benefits
of hiring people with histories of substance abuse and mental
illness (and the research on related 12-step programs) because
of the significant overlaps between these groups and the reentry
populations, and because the personal changes that occur and
insights gained from their process of recovery/reentry are so
remarkably similar.

others to a successful recovery/reentry also
contributes in a unique way to self-forgiveness and a
sense of having earned redemption by compensating,
at least partly, for the harm done to society or to
specific individuals through now “doing good”
for others (Toch 2000, Bazemore and Karp 2004,
Maruna & LeBel 2003);
»» As a result of formerly incarcerated people
supporting the recovery/reentry process of others,
the community may change its attitudes about
formerly incarcerated people, thereby easing their
reintegration into the moral community at large
(Bazemore & Karp 2004, Maruna & LeBel 2003):
and
»» For the formerly incarcerated, being meaningfully
employed makes further involvement in crime less
likely. One reason is the informal social control that
accepting responsibility in any meaningful work (or
relationship) has on a person (Uggen and Janikula
1999; Toch 2000; Sampson and Laub 1993). Another
factor has to do with what Erik Erikson called
“generativity,” which, as defined by Maruna (2001),
means the concern and commitment to promoting
the next generation through teaching or mentoring
them and generating outcomes that aim to benefit
them (Maruna 2001; see also Bazemore & Karp
2004). Concern for the next generation contributes
to desistance from crime.

of client problems and the recovery/reentry process,
including the following:
»»

»»

»»

»»

A peer’s sharing with a client of his own life
experiences and insights gained increases the client’s
understanding of her own situation and reduces the
sense of isolation or of being different or defective
(Davidson et al. 1999; Cain 1991; Rajabiun, Abridge
& Tobias 2006);
Seeing that others like them have made it and
hearing from them how it can be done inspires hope
and instills courage in clients to take steps toward
recovery/reintegration (Rajabiun, Abridge & Tobias
2006, Schiff & Bargal 2000, Roberts et al. 1999,
Davidson et al. 1999);
The peers’ experiential knowledge allows for
vicarious learning on the part of the clients and
enhances their coping and problem-solving skills
(Rajabiun, Abridge & Tobias 2006, DeLeon 2000,
Davidson et al. 1999, Borkman et al. 1988, Cain
1991); and
The experiential knowledge and insights gained
about the recovery/reentry process forms the
foundation for the peer employees’ way of interacting
with clients. It is the source of their empathy and
understanding –including the knowledge that
recovery/reentry is a process, not an event– their
non-judgment, their patience yet persistence, and
their ability to identify client strengths, progress made,
vulnerabilities, and the excuses and rationalizations
some clients may use (Richie 2001, White 2000,
Boschee & Jones 2000, DeLeon 2000, Davidson et al.
1999, Borkman et al. 1998).

Benefits to Agencies

Agencies simultaneously benefit when the outcomes
for the clients (or in the case of self-help groups, the
participants) are positive in that:

For one self-help organization whose population
struggles with mental illness, the closer that the
participants felt to the peer members in their groups and the
more integrated they felt, the higher the positive adjustment
outcomes (Roberts et al. 1999; see also Maton 1988 with
respect to other self-help groups).

»»

»»

Benefits to the Peer Employees
from Helping Others

In taking on new roles of responsibility to help similarly
situated others, the peer employee (or peer-client mentor) is
helped in that:
»»

»»

»»

There is something unique about helping someone
recover from a problem one has shared that
provides a particularly strong boost to self-esteem
and sense of purpose, value, and efficacy (Toch 2000,
Roberts et al. 1999, Riessman 1965, 1990);
The cognitive mechanisms associated with learning
through teaching and mentoring others means that
there is continued self-improvement, self-compliance
with one’s own recovery and cementing of the new
prosocial identity (Bazemore & Karp 2004, Maruna
& LeBel 2003, Maruna 2001, Toch 2000, Roberts et
al. 1999, Humphreys 2004, Cain 1991);
For the formerly incarcerated person, guiding

»»
»»

8

Peer employees can deliver services as effectively
as professionally trained employees (Davidson
et al. 1999, Hutchinson et al. 2006, Christensen &
Jacobson 1994).
At times, nonprofessionally trained peer employees
can be more effective (Christensen & Jacobson 1994).
Borkman et al.’s (1998) study of consumer operated
Social Model Programs (SMPs) in California, a
community model for delivering substance abuse
treatment by those recovering from substance
abuse, found that the SMPs offered treatment
outcomes as effective as those at private and
significantly more expensive treatment centers.
With respect to achieving reductions in criminal
activities of the clients, the consumer-operated
SMPs, however, were more effective.
Peer employees are very committed and passionate,
due in large part to their gratitude for their own
recoveries (White 2001, Brown 1991a, 1991b).
Hiring peer employees at varied levels of skill
and salaries can provide a cost-effective means of
service delivery (Hutchinson et al. 2006, Borkman
et al. 1998). Given that the demand for reentry,
mental health and substance abuse treatment
services exceeds the supply of workers in this

field, researchers have concluded that hiring peer
workers is an effective way to expand needed
services and do so in environs unencumbered
by stigma or discrimination (Hutchinson et al.
2006, Goldstrum et al. 2006, Davidson et al. 1999,
Borkman et al. 1998).

reflection and self-repair tactics and process the stresses of
work with others in the workplace.
On balance, the research literature concludes that the
costs and challenges that exist are strongly outweighed by
the benefits. This has been the experience of The Fortune
Society, as we shall now examine.

Some Challenges to Hiring Peer Employees

Hiring people with life histories shared by your client
population can present challenges, albeit manageable.
Some involve correcting misconceptions, while others
will require creating supportive work environments. One
challenge is responding to the misconception that people
with difficult pasts do not change (Davidson et al. 1999).
The research discussed above regarding role exit (Ebaugh
1988) and the cognitive/social transformations that occur
in people with deviant pasts (LeBel, Burnett, Maruna &
Bushway 2008, Giordano, Cernkovich & Rudolph 2002,
Maruna 2001) proves that change is possible and that
persons with troubled pasts can become effective service
providers. Moreover, some common sense criteria can be
identified and applied to screen candidates, as we shall
discuss in the following sections of this toolkit.10

Another challenge is the concern that experiential
knowledge, as the basis of authority for acquiring a job,
will translate into substandard performance or require
an inordinate amount of on-the-job supports and training
(Davidson et al. 1999, Borkman et al. 1998). The flip side
to this concern is the underlying misconception that
only highly trained professionals can ameliorate certain
problems (Davidson et al. 1999). The research discussed
above demonstrates that professionals with “experiential
knowledge” are effective workers (e.g., Hutchinson et al.
2006, Davidson et al. 1999, Borkman et al. 1998). However,
some will require supplemental on-the-job supports such
as in-house training, outside workshops, and supportive
supervision, all of which is similar in concept and philosophy
to the “supported employment” provided to employees with
disabilities (Borkman et al. 1998, Davidson et al. 1999).
Using vocational training concepts, agencies have succeeded
in effectively training and retaining peer employees
(Hutchinson et al. 2006). We shall discuss training, support,
and supervision strategies in the remaining sections of this
toolkit.

Section II. Case Study–How
The Fortune Society Builds
Cultural Competence Through
Its Hiring and Management
Practices
Introduction

From its beginnings in 1967, The Fortune Society has
been informed and shaped by people whose life experiences
of incarceration and substance abuse mirrored those of
the clients served. For Fortune, the benefits of a culturally
competent workforce—greater effectiveness in service
model design and delivery and advocacy efforts–more
than outweigh the costs and challenges involved in
hiring, developing and retaining people with limited work
experience and histories shared by the client population.
Indeed, the principle cost, the effort involved in developing
and implementing a carefully nuanced hiring practice
and appropriate on-the-job supports for such employees,
redounds to the benefit of the entire agency and makes
it stronger. In addition, Fortune’s hiring policies are in
conformance with New York’s antidiscrimination law (see
Section I above). Fortune’s CEO JoAnne Page, who has
been at the helm since 1987, emphasizes that even those
convicted of serious crimes can transform themselves and
become valuable employees, saying:

Other challenges include the risks of relapse, burnout
from stress, and that the passion and commitment people
with histories of incarceration and/or substance abuse
have to help similarly situated others may lead to overcommitment and over-identification with clients (White
2000). White recommends that service providers who
share clients’ life experiences counter these risks with self-

10	

By way of example, the California SMP substance abuse treatment
centers use the following criteria when hiring applicants with
histories of substance abuse: minimum requirement of sobriety of
from one to two years; active participation in a recovery program;
volunteer or other experience working in a recovery program;
ability to focus on others and avoid rigid thinking; openness to
training; and, for managers, planning and budgeting skills
(Borkman et al. 1988).

I think it’s important to be explicit in acknowledging
that some of our strongest staff and managers have
served many years in prison for some very serious
crimes, including violent felonies. We don’t screen

9

these people out based on their pasts. If they have
been able to move beyond their pasts and gain
valuable insights, then they have a lot to offer
our clients.

licensed provider of mental health services. In the course
of its growth, Fortune has won multiple awards and
recognitions.11

B. Benefits to Building Cultural
Competence Through Hiring
People With Life Experience

A key contribution of Fortune’s story is learning how
Fortune identifies, nurtures, and develops those employees
they call their “Diamonds in the Rough”– men and women
who closely mirror the life experiences, challenges, and
limited work histories of their clients. They are “diamonds”
because they have acquired special talents and insights
from having done the hard work of achieving stability
and personal growth in their own process of recovery
and/or reentry.

Approximately 70% of Fortune’s employees have
histories of incarceration, substance abuse and/or
homelessness (with nearly 50% having been formerly
incarcerated), and over 80% are persons of color. People
with these life experiences occupy all levels of the
agency, increasing its cultural competence and offering
the advantage of greater competitiveness in eligibility
for funding. At the management and executive level, the
presence of key individuals with such life experience shapes
program design and advocacy efforts, and holds the agency’s
direction true to its mission. At the line staff level, the
benefit shows up in the skill and perceptiveness with which
clients are served.

A. Fortune’s Origins: An Agency
of and for Formerly
Incarcerated Persons

In 1967, David Rothenberg, a theatrical press agent,
produced the play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” about one
man’s experience in prison. During its run, Rothenberg
welcomed formerly incarcerated persons to join him on
stage to speak with the audience about the challenges
of reentry. A few months later, he and two formerly
incarcerated men, Kenny Jackson and Melvin Rivers,
decided to form a nonprofit agency to provide reentry
assistance to people being released from prison, and they
called it The Fortune Society. From the start, Fortune was
designed and staffed so that the life experience of formerly
incarcerated people would shape the agency. Co-founders
Jackson and Rivers, one a former gang leader and the other
a former alcoholic, became Fortune’s first counselors and, in
collaboration with the first clients and board of directors,
identified the needs that Fortune would address. Since
that time, Fortune’s mission and services have evolved
organically, and persons with experiential knowledge about
incarceration, substance abuse, and, in later days, HIV/AIDS
and homelessness, have always shaped that process.

Fortune’s commitment to having a board, management,
and staff whose life experiences mirror those of its clients
has never impeded its growth and success as a reentry
service provider and advocate. Fortune has evolved from
a staff of three operating on a shoestring budget to being
an agency with a $16 million dollar budget and staff of 190.
Today, Fortune operates a supportive housing facility for
homeless formerly incarcerated men and women in West
Harlem (Fortune Academy), a mixed-use affordable housing
project in West Harlem (Castle Gardens), and a large facility
in Long Island City that offers programs in alternatives to
incarceration, substance abuse treatment, vocational and
educational training, employment services and coaching, life
skills, parenting/family reunification, anger management,
and HIV/AIDS, and other health-related supportive services.
Fortune also conducts research and actively advocates in
the public arena for changes in laws and policies that hinder
the successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated men
and women. Fortune is currently working on becoming a

Fortune believes that there are two principle and
interrelated dynamics at work through which employees
with these life experiences impact, in a positive manner, the
agency’s core functions of program design and delivery and
advocacy. They are the experiential knowledge and insights
these employees have gained from their life experience
and recovery and/or reentry process and their ability to be
powerful and credible role model, providing clients with
hope and inspiring them to do the hard work of recovery/
reentry. One senior Fortune employee, a former client with
a history of incarceration and substance abuse, explained
these two dynamics in the following way:
Fortune’s hiring practice is a policy driven by the
concept of peer education. First, who better to
understand the plight of someone trying to reenter
society than one who came home earlier than they
did? We may have a social worker or psychologist or
psychiatrist instruct us on how to transform and go
back into society, but that’s not tangible the way it is
to hear it from someone who left the footprints in the
sand and says, ‘I made it, so can you. You just have
to follow them.’ That is something you can touch and
taste and feel. Second, it is about silent role modeling.
Lots of people who know me knew me before. They
see my life transformed and it gives them hope that
they can change. They see a roadmap to becoming a
productive member of society. So it makes it tangible.”

Value of Experiential Knowledge

Employees’ experiential knowledge enhances the
agency’s effectiveness in providing services and advocacy to
the client population in the following ways:

11	

10

»»

Staff and managers know the complete dimensions
- social, physiological, emotional, and cognitive - of

See http://fortunesociety.org/learn-more/what-is-fortune/awardsaccolades/. Retrieved on October 30, 2010.

»»

»»
»»
»»

the conditions under which clients live, or have lived,
and of the recovery/reentry processes and steps.
They empathize with their clients, can assess their
needs, understand the vulnerabilities that present
themselves at all stages of the recovery and
reentry process, and see signs of relapse before
others would.
Because they know the steps to recovery and
reentry, these employees also see and acknowledge
the progress that clients make, even before the
clients themselves see any change. This is critical
to building client self-esteem and fostering client
engagement in services and/or treatment.
Because they developed crucial skills with which to
survive life on the streets and incarceration, these
employees have an enhanced ability to read people
and are not easily manipulated.12
Employees who share the same social environments
as clients have access to some very specific levels of
helpful information (e.g., that the place where a client
hangs out has a high level of drug activity).
Knowing what the clients are struggling with is
instrumental in building client trust, which in turn
contributes to client engagement in services and
treatment programs.

people haven’t been where I’ve been, I tend to not
really want to hear them. That’s just me. How can
you understand being homeless or being in prison if
you’ve never been there…. When they explain their
process and the steps they took to change their lives,
that gives me confidence to open up to them…. They
have genuine care and concern for our well-being….
They don’t talk down to us, like they’re up here and
we’re down there…. They have been there already in
prison and been put down all their lives. They know
what that feels like…. When you are dealing with
addiction, it’s very important that you can speak to
someone who’s been there.

With respect to building trust, staff members know
from their personal experiences (including as former
Fortune clients) that clients, a fair number of whom are
mandated to Fortune’s programs by the courts, probation
and/or parole, arrive hostile, hopeless, with “trust issues”
or “their guard up.” They may arrive “skeptical about service
providers in general” based on prior experience with
providers elsewhere who may have been overwhelmed, put
them down, did not understand them, or failed to properly
assess their needs. Fortune staff members also know that
some of the survival lessons learned in prison (e.g., the need
to protect your turf and act tough) can result in attitudes
and behaviors that can lead to resistance to program
services. Staff members are very understanding, therefore,
around issues of respect, dignity, autonomy, shame, and
racial/ethnic validation, knowing that sensitive handling
of those issues helps create the necessary bridges to client
trust, without which, said one senior employee, “They won’t
tell you things like ‘I was tempted to use last night.’ They won’t
come to you with their issues.”
The clients and former clients interviewed spoke about
the care and concern they feel (or felt) from their Fortune
counselors and how important that was in developing trust.
One client explained:
They have a better understanding. They made me
feel at ease. It’s the way they talk to people…. When

12	

One senior employee called it the “third eye” that allows him to pick
up all sorts of verbal, behavioral, emotional and attitudinal cues from
clients that tell him when a client is in a vulnerable state, has “good
intentions or not,” or simply that the “moment is right to initiate
talking to someone.” This skill is also important to determining client
“readiness” for a volunteer or employment position or treatment
program.

Powerful and Credible Role Models

Employees who have successfully navigated the
challenges of recovery and/or reentry provide the additional
bonus of being credible and powerful role models that
clients can identify with and want to emulate. The impact
of this is all the more powerful when clients interact with
Fortune employees whom they knew as “tough people”
from the streets or prison, some of whom are now part of
Fortune’s management team. CEO Page explained that:
You get a level of role modeling that you can’t put a
price on. Hope is big. You see someone on staff who
was in more trouble than you ever wanted to be in
and who is now a role model. It’s powerful. It’s a way
in which you bring hope and provide a role model for
a client that another person without that experience
won’t bring. This hope fuels people to do the hard
things they need to do to change.13

A key element of being a role model is the “great deal of
sharing and advice being given from people who have faced
very similar circumstances.” This sharing, and the hope and

13	

11

The employees are very keenly aware that they are looked up to. One
senior employee with a known reputation on the streets said: Lots
of people who know me knew me before. They see my life transformed
and it gives them hope that they can change. They see a roadmap to
becoming a productive member of society. Another employee, a senior
director, acknowledged that: “There is a high degree of credibility
given to the formerly incarcerated people that work at the agency,
especially those who are in management. People relate to us. We know
that we are huge role models for clients and staff.”

courage it creates, resonates strongly with the clients, as the
following client statement demonstrates:

themselves and to society. In the words of one senior
case manager:

But it helps a lot, in general, to know that my case
manager was out there using drugs like I was, and
it benefits me to know that I can get there too. I can
stay on the right path. I have a choice like he had a
choice, and he’s doing good and doing what he needs
to do to maintain being a productive member of
society. If he is doing the right things to stay on the
right path, I can do it too. It helps a whole lot.

It’s very important because a lot of society looks
down on you, no one wants to give you a second
chance, and Fortune not only gives you a second, but
third and fourth and fifth chance. …It is really about
showing society that we made mistakes. We had
some unfortunate circumstances and if given the
opportunity, we can change and we will.

Fortune provides a ladder to careers that employees
climb in accordance with their abilities and level of passion
and dedication. For some people, this means proceeding
upward step-by-step in quick progression. One staff
member interviewed had, in five years, gone from being
a client, to an intern, to being hired as a client escort, and
then to being promoted in fairly quick succession to group
facilitator, treatment plan counselor, and then senior
caseworker. During those five years, he also completed
numerous trainings, including the nine-month course work
and requisite 6,000 hours of fieldwork for a substance
abuse counseling license, and found time to co-author a play.
Other employees may land higher up on the ladder straight
out of prison. One senior management person, who earned
his college degree and ran a prison release program while
incarcerated, landed a management job at Fortune after his
release. He later left Fortune, gained more experience at
another nonprofit organization, and came back to Fortune at
an even higher level of responsibility. Still others may need
to move down the ladder to a job with fewer responsibilities
or required skill sets if they fail to develop the skills needed
for a job or face a personal crisis that interferes with the
responsibilities assigned to them.

Organizational Integrity and Providing
Pathways to Careers

Fortune’s conspicuous and substantial hiring of people
with histories of incarceration and other experiences shared
by their clients is also driven by the need to be true to its
mission and values as an organization, be a role model to
other agencies and employers for what it preaches, and be
authentic in its advocacy work. As explained by CEO Page, it
would contradict Fortune’s stated mission “to support the
successful reentry of men and women released from prison”
and its belief “in the power of individuals to change” were
Fortune to tell a client, “Have hope; you matter. But, I won’t
hire you.” It’s about walking the talk, not only with its clients,
who need to see that Fortune truly believes in their abilities
to change, but also with those prospective employers and
policymakers whose minds Fortune seeks to influence about
the hiring of formerly incarcerated people. As put by CEO
Page:

“What better message and proof that it
works than to ourselves affirmatively
hire people with histories of
incarceration, substance abuse, HIV/
AIDS and/or homelessness who then
give back to their communities and
in many cases emerge as powerful
advocates for Fortune or powerful
leaders for their communities.”

Consistent with its values as an agency, Fortune
therefore sees people with histories of incarceration (and
substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, homelessness) as assets, not
deficits. One senior executive explained:
We see folks as folks that are capable of being in the
workforce, capable of providing the tools and
support necessary to do the work of the organization.
So that’s our starting point. From there it drives
everything else…. You can either see people as assets
or you can see people as deficits. We see formerly
incarcerated people as assets.

Greater Competitiveness in Obtaining Funding

As discussed earlier in Section I, federal agencies
that fund reentry, substance abuse treatment, and HIV/
AIDS programs value cultural competency in determining
eligibility for receiving grants.14 Fortune is proud of the fact
that SAMHSA recognizes it as a culturally competent
provider of substance abuse treatment programs.15 In one
instance, Fortune obtained a million dollar per year contract
that it would not have been eligible for had it not been a
culturally diverse and culturally competent agency. In short,
14	

15	

Fortune’s hiring practice provides formerly incarcerated
men and women not only with meaningful jobs (sometimes
their first), but also with pathways to careers and deeply
appreciated second chances to prove their worth to
12

There is, however, a lack of consistency with respect to government
policies. New York State’s Parole Department rules prohibit parolees
from supervising other parolees in programs that it funds, as, for
example, in a drug treatment program. Fortune negotiated a waiver
from that rule, convincing Parole that to comply with that rule would
compromise program effectiveness and its values as an agency. In
arguing that it could not be as effective without hiring parolees,
Fortune took a risk at not getting the funding.
SAMHSA recognizes Fortune’s model of employing people with
histories of incarceration and substance abuse to deliver counseling
and substance abuse services as a culturally competent model
that also “offers a powerful opportunity for offenders to interact
with positive role models.” “Continuity of Offender Treatment for
Substance Use Disorders,” 1998. U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services (DHHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Administration (SAMHSA), Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP)
No. 30. Retrieved on October 20, 2010 from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
bookshelf/br.fcgi?book=hssamhsatip&part=A53936

identify the skills, personal attributes, bases of knowledge,
and prior experience actually needed for any particular job.
In so doing, it has adopted the following guidelines:

says Fortune, to grow and be effective in delivering services,
it behooves reentry agencies to move toward becoming
culturally competent service providers.

»»

C. Nuanced Hiring and Employee
Development Practices

Fortune follows the golden rule in social services
work of “do no harm.” Accordingly, job applicants with
life experiences shared by the clients and limited or no
track records of work must demonstrate that they have
achieved stability in their lives and are a good positional
fit for a job. To ensure a good fit between agency and
client needs on the one hand and Fortune’s goal to provide
pathways to careers for the formerly incarcerated on the
other, Fortune has developed a carefully considered and
nuanced hiring practice that includes: mitigating the lack
of “ job readiness” of many formerly incarcerated people
and creating a pipeline of job candidates with a robust
volunteer and internship program; reverse-engineering job
profiles so that Fortune gets the skills and people it really
needs to deliver services effectively to clients; and using a
three-axis approach to screening potential candidates. These
components are broad and flexible enough that Fortune uses
them for all of its hiring decisions.

»»

»»

»»

By way of example of “reverse-engineering,” for the
position of court advocate, Fortune looks for “a pit-bull
with a smile,” that is, a tenacious and persistent person
who can advocate respectfully, and who has leadership
skills, experience with the criminal justice system, the
cultural competence to assess a client in a holding pen and
read subtle signs, and the desire to give back. Given the
skill set desired, a history of incarceration and substance
abuse are considered assets. For the position of counselor,
Fortune looks for a person with a sense of mission, good
interpersonal skills, baseline writing, computer and
documentation skills, and knowledge of incarceration,
reentry challenges and substance abuse. Given the needs
of the job and the importance of credible role models who
can share personal stories of recovery, Fortune has created
a “boundary” policy around counselors: Fortune will only
hire counselors with “histories,” unless an exception to that
rule is warranted. Such exceptions occur on a case-by-case
basis, when specific skill sets are needed in a program and
someone without a “history” is the strongest candidate for
hire, but they are sharply limited in number. This reverseengineering process helps the candidate with life experience
qualify for a job while assuring that the managers who hire
new employees are “grounded in what they really want and
need” and make objectively–based hiring decisions. All other
things being equal, Fortune will hire the person with a
history of incarceration, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS or
homelessness.

Creating a Pipeline of Job Candidates Through
Volunteer and Internship Programs

As of the writing of this Toolkit, 32% of Fortune’s new
employees are former Fortune clients. Many of these clients
are hired after participating in one of several volunteer
and internship programs at Fortune, which function both
as ways to expand Fortune’s service capabilities and
create “job readiness” in clients who lack a track record of
legitimate work.

Fortune’s volunteers generally fall into two groups. One
group consists of tutors, who tend to be “straight-world
folks” interested in working with Fortune’s clients but, for
the most part, are not looking for careers there. The second
group of volunteers performs other functions at Fortune and
consists largely of current and former clients interested
both in helping others and developing work skills. On
average there are 30 volunteers of the second type at any
given time at Fortune. Fortune also participates in various
internship programs that are funded by outside agencies.
These involve specific duties and opportunities to interact
with Fortune staff and develop work skills. At a minimum,
the volunteers and interns get meaningful work and
supervision experience that assists them in their personal
growth and “work readiness.”

Reverse-Engineering Job Profiles

Fortune is adamant that while jobs should not be underprofessionalized, neither should they be unnecessarily
over-professionalized in such a way as to “eliminate a large
pool of candidates and people we want.” Accordingly, Fortune
basically “reverse-engineers” its job profiles, meaning that
it breaks down job roles into their essential components to

Eliminate educational requirements that are not
necessary for job performance and would only
impose barriers to the hiring of people with
relevant life experience. Thus, a college degree is
rarely required for a job at Fortune.
Allow alternative experiences to substitute for prior
work experience (e.g., being a mentor or working or
volunteering in a human services capacity while in
prison).
Treat the life experiences of incarceration, substance
abuse, HIV/AIDS and/or homelessness, and the
recovery/reentry process as strengths and “bonuses”
toward building the agency’s cultural competence.
Identify the kind of person who possesses the skills,
core competencies, bases of knowledge, and personal
attributes the job requires (e.g., someone who
has been an effective HIV peer educator while
incarcerated).

Three-Axis Approach to Assessing
Job Candidates

Fortune emphasizes that just as people and their
circumstances are multi-faceted, so is the assessment of a
candidate’s positional fit at Fortune. As Fortune’s
CEO explains, when it comes to hiring people with life
experiences shared by the clients:

13

“We believe two contradictory things at
the same time: people have an enormous
capacity to change, and also, people tend to
be who they’ve been, unless something has
happened to change the trajectory. We look
for that change and are open to that.”
To the end of looking for that change in trajectory,
Fortune evaluates candidates for employment along three
distinct axes:
»»

»»
»»

Personal growth (e.g., insights gained from relevant
life experiences) and stability (e.g., sobriety,
good coping skills, commitment to nonviolence,
experience assuming responsibility in some
capacity);
Professional skill level; and
Track record of experience, whether of the traditional
professional work pattern type or an alternative
type from life experience as a person with a history
of incarceration, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, and/or
homelessness.

Any given person can be at different points of a
continuum along the three axes, and it is the overall holistic
presentation of the candidate and the positional fit to an
available job at Fortune that determines a hiring decision.

Two Types of Candidates: The “Credentialed”
and the “Diamond in the Rough”

The Interview: An Opportunity to Assess Change
in Trajectory and Job Readiness

During the interview, Fortune looks for evidence
of personal growth, including respect of self and others,
acceptance of responsibility for their own part in their past
(which speaks to honesty and maturity), a strong desire to
“give back” and passion for the work that Fortune does. The
agency will also look for signs of “stability” (e.g., sobriety
and some history of assuming responsibility). The agency
assumes that when a person has held any sort of job for a
significant period of time, such as one year, this provides
strong evidence of stability, regardless of the nature of
the work.

One thing that incarcerated people have is time.
Therefore, how a person used that time, in an environment
that by necessity orients people to self-survival and
is not conducive to personal development, is key to
assessing whether there has been personal growth and the
development of a desire to “give back” to others. Fortune’s
experience is that some candidates have done amazing
things with their “time.” Some examples include individuals
who, while incarcerated, created new programs in prison,
completed a college degree and then ran a prison prerelease program, mentored other prisoners for years, or
became an HIV/AIDS educator after seeing what an HIV+
“bunky” [cellmate] was going through.

Assessing core professional skills (e.g., computer
skills, documentation and communication skills) of
the Diamond in the Rough candidate is not easy, as the
usual surrogate indicators of academic milestones and/
or job experience may not exist. Formerly incarcerated
persons who apply at Fortune typically bring portfolios
containing proof of training, internships, in-prison work
and treatment programs in which they have participated.
Fortune will review those and also give writing assignments
to candidates to test basic literacy and communication
skills. Skills and work-readiness are verified by checking
references and “tapping into the grapevine” that Fortune
maintains on the streets, with sister agencies and with
Parole and Probation. Three references are required of all
candidates, and for the Diamonds in the Rough, references
may include counselors, caseworkers, ministers or parole or
probation officers.

The three-axis approach primarily yields two types of
candidates. One is the credentialed type. That is, someone
with educational achievements and/or a professional
pattern of employment that involves increased increments
in job responsibilities. This could be a person with a history
of life experiences shared by the clients. For example,
some employees with histories of incarceration and/or
substance abuse were hired at Fortune after they had
earned college degrees and acquired a significant, relevant
work history. Even though credentialed, such candidates
are still subject to discrimination by some employers and
benefit from Fortune’s affirmative hiring of people with life
experiences shared by the client population. The second
type of candidate is what Fortune refers to as “Diamond in
the Rough,” those with histories of incarceration, substance
abuse, HIV/AIDS and/or homelessness who show strong
motivation and potential, but lack a traditional education
and/or professional work track record, the typically used
surrogates for evidence of work competence.

Fortune also assesses the candidate’s overall
presentation and attitude. Is he dressed appropriately? Does
she use respectful language to talk about Fortune’s clients
and the work? Does his body language and response to
questions reveal a resistance to feedback and/or authority?
Does the candidate with a work track record hate every
job she ever had? Fortune will not hire anyone who uses
disrespectful language about its client population or who
hated every prior job. While Fortune will look generously at
the effort made in the candidate’s presentation on paper, as
in the cover letter and resume, it sets high standards about
the personal presentation the candidate makes, whatever
the candidate’s track record.

Fortune’s primary tool for the three-axis assessment
of a Diamond in the Rough is an in-depth interview. Job
candidates at Fortune know its affirmative action policy
regarding people with histories shared by the client
population and that a criminal background check will
be conducted–as has become the norm in social services
work–but for many, it is the only place where their histories
are discussed openly and seen as potential assets, rather
than reasons for rejection.

14

Mindfulness About the Number of Diamonds
in the Rough the Agency Can Hire

When Fortune has a promising Diamond in the Rough
candidate who is strong on axis one (stability and growth)
and on axis three (relevant life experience), but the
professional skill level may be difficult to assess, it will do
one of two things. It may place the person at a more entrylevel job (e.g., administrative) and then give the person
opportunities to acquire training for the more demanding
job (e.g., caseworker). Alternatively, if the candidate is
particularly strong and shows evidence of being a very
motivated and capable learner, Fortune will incorporate this
candidate into the unit to which she applied as a “trainee,”
provided the unit director or a supervisor can commit to the
on-the-job training and hiring the person will not negatively
impact program services.16 Fortune will perform a unitby-unit assessment to calculate how many Diamond in the
Rough “trainees” a unit can feasibly incorporate and provide
with an appropriately reduced workload, training and close
supervision. This concern does not, of course, apply to the
“credentialed” new employee with life experience and a track
record of work and/or relevant training.

D. Careful Design of On-the-Job
Supports

Fortune has designed and implemented a well
thought-out system of training, development, support, and
supervision that begins with acclimating new employees to
Fortune’s workplace values and norms.

Passing Down of Agency Values
To New Employees

All new employees undergo an orientation, the purpose
of which is to explain and model the following values and
norms of the agency:
»»

»»

»»

16	

»»

A Scaffolding Approach to On-the-Job Training

Most Diamonds in the Rough will get a significant
amount of one-on-one training with close support and
supervision. Fortune adopts a style of “scaffolding” training
that involves a close interaction between the manager
(teacher) and the trainee. The manager begins with the
skills that the trainee possesses and builds upon those, as
the manager takes responsibility for aspects of the job the
trainee has not yet learned. Over time the trainee acquires
and internalizes more skills and needs less and less of a
scaffold. For example, trainees at Fortune will often start by
“shadowing” someone already in the position for a period of
time, before they start to take on the responsibilities of the
role. Fortune may use shadowing as a teaching tool for jobs
such as group facilitator or court advocate.
Another scaffolding approach is to start the trainee on
a reduced caseload and work closely to build the trainee’s
skills, gradually increasing the caseload to full capacity.
This would be done for a caseworker or discharge planner.
Another scaffolding tool is to supplement outside training,
(e.g., a course in clinical note taking), with mentoring on
that particular skill by a licensed clinician on staff. The key
is the interactional and incremental approach to providing
on-the-job training.

Internal and External Classroom Training

Employees are constantly nudged to increase their
skill sets with training and formal education.17 One staff
member’s comment reflected internalization of this
value:“Here your rap sheet is part of your resume. But, it is not
enough. You need the combination of the two: the academics
and the life experience.” Accordingly, Fortune offers a robust

Clients are to be treated the way staff would want
their loved ones to be treated should they ever have to
walk through Fortune’s doors for services.
Every client is your client. If a staff member
encounters a client who looks distressed or
confused, that person is expected to attend to that
client right there and then.
Each employee belongs to each person in management.
The doors of managers are always open. New
employees learn that there is an open door policy
and every person in management is accessible.
In the design of their office space, Fortune
deliberately chose to have glass partitions so
that staff and management could be visible and
accessible to each other.

The salary of the Diamond in the Rough will reflect the trainee
status. Fortune believes that it is fair, to the agency and the Diamond
in the Rough trainee, that the employee’s salary be set at what the
person’s skills and job experience could demand in the market
place, and the trainee be given a correspondingly reduced workload
until such time as the trainee has proved an ability to meet the job
demands fully.

There is no ceiling to how high employees can reach.
This is made potent and tangible to employees every
day when they interact with senior level managers
who were formerly incarcerated and/or have
histories of substance abuse and have steadily risen
through the ranks at Fortune. As one senior person
put it, “It’s like a secret weapon. I am the proof of how
it works and that it can work.”

17	

15

Fortune also nudges its employees to attain higher education
degrees and provides an amount for tuition reimbursement.

array of classroom training to either strengthen skill sets for
the jobs employees already have (e.g., clinical note-writing,
caseworker 101, Death, Dying and Bereavement, computer
skills) or to advance them to positions of greater
responsibility and skill (e.g., Sole Associates, Inc. trainings
on Organizational Change and Leadership.)

may be dealing with his own reentry issues and
require a supportive and flexible environment.
The employee may need time off during the
workday to meet with her parole officer. She may
face immigration issues or family reunification
challenges.

Currently, Fortune is in the process of pooling its own
in-house expertise to create a Fortune Society Training
Institute, thereby institutionalizing and expanding on the
training that it already provides in-house. It is undergoing a
unit-by-unit assessment of training needs and will develop
a series of core skill classes that employees must take (e.g.,
computer skills or training in confidentiality requirements)
and electives that employees can choose to take to make
them more marketable, whether at Fortune or elsewhere. To
create incentives for that, Fortune is devising a system by
which points earned in the annual evaluations will be tied
to courses taken. The Training Institute will support those
employees who struggle to achieve a certain skill level so
that their development does not fall through the cracks.18

Fortune mitigates the cost of this customized and
multi-faceted support and supervision in several ways. For
one thing, Fortune has adopted a very low ratio between
supervisor and staff of one to five. Fortune’s open door
policy further militates against overload of the supervisors,
because the burden of supervision is widely shared and
employees know they can reach out to anyone available.
Staff members who were interviewed commented about the
value of this open door policy. One employee said:
Actually, I have a million supervisors (officially, I have
only one) because there is an open door policy here.
You can go to anyone who is available to talk. We
have a really good network here; it’s functioning.

It helps a great deal that, because Fortune promotes
from within, people with life experience are well
represented in management. In fact, many of them held the
very same jobs they are now supervising; therefore, they
understand job stresses and how they impact an employee.
Managers know that supervising someone with history
shared by the client population means keeping their eyes
and ears open for the shadow side to the employee’s close
bond with his clients (risk of over-identification) or her
passion for the work (risk of over-commitment). In the
words of one senior director, having a culturally competent
management team means “We are not managing just from
our positions, but from our life experience. It’s like a secret
weapon.” Grateful for the supervision he gets at Fortune, one
senior caseworker stated:

Customized Support and Supervision

Support and supervision of Diamond in the Rough
employees can differ from supervision of other employees in
three ways:
»»

»»

»»

18	

It can be more time-consuming because of their
limited work experience. A Diamond in the Rough,
after the initial period of on-the-job training, may
require more frequent supervision (e.g., every week
or every few days, rather than the minimum of
every two weeks for others).
It can require acclimating the employee to the
environment of work and the outside world. Some
employees at Fortune have served long sentences
before they were hired at Fortune. They may
have gaps in knowledge about the outside world
or expectations about work that are unrealistic.19
Another type of adjustment stems from the reality
that the “metrics” of a job in prison may be very
different from the “metrics” in an outside job,
especially around the issue of time (e.g., work hours
in a day or the time it should take to manage a task).
Support and supervision may be more personal
because the new Diamond in the Rough employee

I can get anxious and overwhelmed and this is where
supervision comes into play. I look up to them—they
are all positive, personally involved, approachable
and not elevated, so to speak. They understand me,
[and] the experiences. I can speak with them and joke
with them…. I get good feedback. They are a good
sounding board.

Dealing With Lingering “Incarceration”
or “Street Life” Norms

In looking back at employees who did not work out, Fortune has
learned that certain skills are difficult for some people to learn on
the job and are better acquired through a dedicated course. While
Fortune’s employee turnover rate compares favorably to other
service agencies, even with its substantial hiring of people with
histories shared by the client population, to improve further on its
retention rate, Fortune has shifted its focus to identifying employees
who need improvement and providing the specific trainings needed
“to take people who are at risk and move them back into good standing.”
19	 For example, a person who has had no outside world experience as
an adult may have no idea how to select an appropriate venue for a
business meeting. An employee who is passionate about his work,
as an opportunity to prevent young people from following the same
destructive path that he did, will have to learn that he cannot “save”
his clients against their will and that the final responsibility for
change rests with the client.

16

Management team members know from their own life
experiences and from serving their client population that
some Diamonds in the Rough may be “rough around the
edges” when it comes to accepting criticism or letting go
of street and/or incarceration norms, including those that
forbid “ratting” someone out. As CEO Page explained, “It
is hard for anyone to ‘snitch’ on a client or co-worker, but it
is much harder for the formerly incarcerated person whose
survival on the streets or in prison quite literally depended on
not ‘ratting’ anyone out.” At work, prison or street norms may
show up as reluctance to share troubling client information
with the treatment team or some troubling information
about the behavior of a co-worker or supervisee. Page

asserts that skill in addressing these problems with clients
will prepare managers to address them in staff supervision:

fire can later show us that they can be trusted, we
will rehire. The modeling benefits that we get from
rehiring a person who regains our trust are powerful.

Knowing this problem is part of the cultural
competence of the managers. It is the nature of the
population to have this problem, both as clients
and as employees. You see this as an issue and it is
a conversation you have with the staff. If you are
culturally competent to deal with your clients, than
you are culturally competent to deal with those same
problems with your staff. It is not that different.

“An Ounce of Cost to a Pound of Benefit”

The Fortune Society began as and remains an agency for
and of formerly incarcerated men and women. Fortune’s CEO
of over 21 years, JoAnne Page, like the co-founder and CEO
before her, David Rothenberg, cannot imagine Fortune doing
its work any other way, saying:
It is an ounce of cost to a pound of benefit. We
wouldn’t want to do this work without formerly
incarcerated men and women and those with
histories of substance abuse, homelessness, and/or
HIV/AIDS. It would be like doing the work with one
eye covered. With all of us in the room, it’s like being
able to see the world in 3-D. The more views you have,
the better you see. This is true in our advocacy work,
grant proposals, service delivery and design, and in
our educating other service providers. We need that
diversity and we are better for it.

When a candidate for employment appears to be
“rough around the edges,” but holds out promise to work
out in the long run, Fortune will place the person in an
internship position or in an entry level job (e.g., as a
trainee in maintenance or administrative work). In general,
new employees at Fortune participate in a six-month
introductory period and are then evaluated for continued
employment. In some cases, the introductory period can
be extended. This gives Fortune the opportunity to test
the waters with new employees and determine their job
readiness and positional fit.

“And, it’s about integrity. If we
say we have certain values, then
we have to walk the talk. If we
want others to take back in people
with histories of incarceration,
substance abuse, and/or
homelessness, we have to do
it and promote it.”

Learning from Mistakes and Remaining
Vigilant Around Values

Building cultural competence is a never-ending task.
Therefore, Fortune looks at achieving cultural competence
as a process and continually reflects on and learns from
mistakes. Fortune uses these lessons learned to improve
hiring practices and on-the-job supports. There is a
percentage of people who are let go because they relapse,
do not acquire the skills needed, or in some manner violate
the values of the organization (e.g., disrespect to a client).
It hurts to let someone go and time invested is lost. The
protocol in discharging an employee consists of an exit
interview (when appropriate and feasible) to learn as much
as possible about the circumstances and to improve hiring
decisions or supervision, support and/or training. Fortune
will look back at the original interview notes to determine,
with the advantage of hindsight, whether there had been
any red flags that they had either overlooked or erroneously
thought would be manageable.
Whether the discharged employee can be rehired is
a decision driven by a cost-benefit analysis and guided by
Fortune’s values as an agency. Fortune understands that
relapse and infractions happen; however, a core agency
value is the belief that people can learn and recover from
mistakes. If the person has good skills, and the infraction
did not involve mistreatment of a client, Fortune will
consider rehiring them. Fortune’s CEO explains the logic on
this as follows:

Section III: Applying The
Fortune Society’s Cultural
Competence Hiring Strategies
to Other Organizations–The
Thames Reach Story
The Fortune Society case study offers a compelling
example, supported by the research literature, of how hiring
individuals with experiential knowledge matching that of
an organization’s clients can result in numerous benefits.
However, it is legitimate to wonder whether Fortune’s
experience is somewhat unique, in that from the beginning
it was shaped by men and women who were formerly
incarcerated, and whether its experiences can therefore be
applied directly to other organizations. The applicability of
Fortune’s practices can be illuminated by a brief look at the
evolution in hiring practices of a service provider with a
very different history.

How you handle the hard stuff is where you test your
values. So, how we handle those who relapse, break a
key agency rule, or significantly violate trust is how
we test our values about people’s capacity for change.
We may have to fire you, have you prosecuted, but we
will still look at you as a human being. We separate
the person from the crime. If someone whom we

17

Founded in 1984, Thames Reach is a London-based
organization that offers a broad range of services to

very clear commitment to being an inspirational role
model to the people living there.
Upon learning that more than half of Fortune’s staff
members were former users of services, a model of success
that he had not previously seen, Swain was inspired to take
this approach back to London. After receiving funding in
2005, Thames Reach launched a program called “GROW”
(Giving Real Opportunities for Work). The program’s goal
was for Thames Reach to increase its hiring of former
service users (people struggling with homelessness
and the co-occurring problems of substance abuse and
incarceration). For the first two years, GROW focused largely
on internal cultural change and training cohorts of clients to
be work ready. Some of the highlights of the GROW program
include:
»»
»»
»»
»»
»»

homeless men and women. It provides housing, training,
education, and employment programs and direct services
to homeless men and women.20 Funded by government
resources, Thames Reach currently employs 450 men and
women and has more than doubled its size over the last ten
years. In 2005, Thames Reach employees included only a
small percentage (six percent) of former users of services for
the homeless, i.e., those with experiential knowledge of the
journeys of Thames Reach clients. In 2010, approximately
23% of the 450 employees (i.e., 103) are former services
users.

»»

Five years after the launch of GROW, and reflecting
on this new hiring policy and its impact on meeting the
agency’s mission, Swain said:
There is logic behind doing it…. [that is] unstoppable.
If you are going to say to the public, the corporate
sector, the world around, ‘You must believe in hiring
these people’ and ‘they can change their lives,’ it
is absurd not to be able to show that yourself
by employing them. And second, if you can do it
successfully and these people work well in the
organization, the impact they can have on other
people is profound, and it can help you achieve
your objectives, your targets, your mission far more
quickly than if you don’t have them with you.

According to Jeremy Swain, President of Thames Reach,
it was a 2003 visit to The Fortune Society in New York City
that inspired the agency to re-engineer its hiring model to
promote, in his words, “using service users in the workforce
to transform lives.” Swain recounts being shown around
Fortune’s West Harlem supportive housing facility by
A highly articulately clear man with a great grasp of
his job and very passionate about what Fortune was
attempting to achieve, [who] then told us as a part of
his delivery [that] he was formerly incarcerated [and]
still using the services. We were very taken by the
added value his experience brought to the job and his

20	

Reviewing and revising employment guidelines and
codes of practice;
Establishing criteria for minimal competencies
required in staff positions;
Revising recruitment procedures;
Developing routes into employment for service
users;
Creating a nine-month (currently 12-month) trainee
program to give service users the opportunities to
develop work skills and receive on-the-job training;
and21
Setting specific annual targets of percentage
increases in the hiring of prior service users and/or
those with experiential knowledge of homelessness
and co-occurring problems.

Thames Reach’s hiring model has had a series of
impressive results, including:
»»
»»

The information about Thames Reach was obtained through a
telephone interview with its CEO Jeremy Swain and a review of
its website publications and a commissioned study, published
in 2010, describing its experience in and analyzing the costs of
adopting hiring practices to employ former service users. The
report, authored by Kevin Ireland of Compendium Consulting, is
titled: “‘Walking the walk’: An exploration of the costs and benefits
of service user employment in homelessness organizations,” Final
Report, January 2010, and can be downloaded from: http://www.
thamesreach.org.uk/what-we-do/user-employment/costsandbenefits/

21	

18

»»
»»

Improved service experience for the clients;
More efficient restructuring of how the agency
delivers its services;
Reduced cost of the service delivery teams;
Reduced costs of recruiting employees as a result of

While Thames Reach does not guarantee an offer of employment
to its trainees, its experience has been that the overwhelming
majority successful complete the training and most receive offers
of employment from Thames Reach and a few from other service
agencies (Ireland 2010).

»»
»»

With respect to standards, Swain says that in training and
hiring former service users, it look sfor and gets “exactly the
same skill level as you do from anybody else.” He added:

the in-house trainee program;
Enhanced ability to influence policymakers; and
Positive impact on the organization’s culture
(Ireland 2010).

We do have to reach high standards. That’s partly
why it’s so exciting. We’ve done this without lowering
standards. We’ve made this investment in the quality
of the workforce, and its range of experiences is just
growing, and as a result we provide a better service
from where we were five years ago.

This last result is embodied in Swain’s observation
that staff members without experiential knowledge now
view their client population as people capable of successful
change. There is no “poverty of expectations.” All of this
has come to the attention of government bodies in the UK.
Thames Reach has received two years worth of funding to
convince and train other organizations across the UK to
follow their lead.

To justify (or not) the costs of implementing and
continuing GROW and its nine-month (now 12-month)
trainee programs, Thames Reach commissioned an
economic study of those costs (Ireland 2010). That report
concluded that the costs of the trainee programs and
other elements of GROW were more than absorbed by the
organization’s gains in productivity, the decreased costs of
service delivery teams from the lower salaries for trainees,
the decreased costs in recruitment, and the benefits gained
agency-wide from its reappraisal of systems, standards and
procedures. The net result has been lowered costs without
any reduction in quality of services (Ireland 2010). The
benefits of Thames Reach’s GROW trainee program have
been so impressive that in 2007 the organization decided
to harmonize it with all of its other training programs, so
that now all new hires, irrespective of whether they have
experiential knowledge or not, undergo this training. In
that same year, a target was set that 50% of all new trainees
should be people with experience with homelessness
(Ireland 2010).

Having quadrupled the percentage of its staff with
experiential knowledge of homelessness, substance abuse,
and incarceration in just five years—primarily by hiring
from its trainee program—Thames Reach’s experience
illuminates how an organization with more traditional
hiring practices can relatively quickly achieve significantly
greater diversity in staffing. Swain reports that the
biggest challenge at Thames Reach was the initial “cultural
resistance” of its staff. Some of it surfaced in the form of
understandable questions that later turned out to be rather
straightforward to address, such as whether formerly
homeless people might still be “carrying too much baggage
to make the adjustment of working for...[an] organization;”
would have problems handling client confidentiality; or
should disclose their own histories to clients.

It is instructive to note that Thames Reach spent
the first two years of GROW mindfully dealing with
agency culture issues, while simultaneously beginning to
incorporate former service users into the agency, initially
as trainees. It did not launch affirmative hiring for staff
positions until 2007, by which time some of the culture
issues had been effectively addressed. Today, the agency’s
staff believes it would be “decidedly odd” if they were not
employing people with a history of homelessness. Not only
do clients benefit from their interactions with staff members
with experiential knowledge, but also staff members
without the histories of homelessness (and drug addiction
and incarceration) learn from personal stories that are
now shared at Thames Reach. Additionally, having staff
with experiential knowledge has better prepared Thames
Reach to implement and be a catalyst for the new UK model
of delivering services called “personalization,” by which
certain “paternalistic” elements of delivering services are
eliminated in favor of giving more authority to the client
to determine needs. Having staff that were former service
users gives Thames Reach a distinct advantage adapting
to this change. The new understandings at Thames Reach
about issues such as boundaries, the paternalism in “poverty
of expectations,” and the value of sharing personal stories
has added to its cultural competence and impacted how it
delivers services. Swain notes that staff members are proud
of the way the organization has “embraced the change” in its
hiring practices.
All this was accomplished without lowering hiring
standards or adding to overall organizational overhead.

The Thames Reach story demonstrates that an
organization, even one that is mature and growing, can
change its hiring strategy to value and honor experiential
knowledge. It also provides a powerful example that a large
organization with a different cultural and historical context
from Fortune’s can nonetheless successfully adopt similar
hiring practices.

Section IV: Developing Cultural
Competence Through Hiring
and Development Practices:
Getting Started Today

19

The purpose of this section is to provide you with
some promising practices for building cultural competence
through hiring and developing individuals with life histories
similar to the clients your organization serves. Should your
organization choose to adopt such hiring practices, it is
important to do so with the current legal and government
grant-making landscape in mind. These landscapes have
changed dramatically since the late 1960s. Fortune’s own
hiring and staff development practices have evolved in
response to these forces, as well as from its 40+ years of
experience in hiring men and women with experiential
knowledge and limited work histories.

A. Making the Case to Your Agency:
Changing Culture
Perhaps your organization has already identified
cultural competency as an organizational goal. If this is the
case, highlight to your employees and board members how
hiring individuals with experiential knowledge helps in
building competence. Should your agency decide to broaden
its hiring practices, be prepared to communicate agencywide the benefits and challenges you anticipate. Additionally,
outline how hiring practices and staff development
strategies will change.

Principles of Effective Organizational Change

Depending on your leadership experience, you may be
familiar with the principles of organizational change. There
is a large body of literature that describes the processes
and practices of successful change (e.g., Burke 2002, Kotter
2002), some of which may be particularly useful here. Kotter
(2002) refers to eight steps of successful organizational
change that are important to keep in mind should your
organization decide to employ culturally competent hiring
practices. They are:
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Make it urgent. Inspire staff and explain how the
objectives of the change are compelling.
Build the right team to help lead the change.
Team members need a strong sense of emotional
commitment, the right mix of skills, and to come
from numerous levels within the organization.
Create a clear vision of the desired future and
strategy to get there.
Communicate effectively and frequently.
Make the messages simple (with intellectual and
emotional appeal) and provide opportunities to
hear employee concerns and suggestions.
Remove barriers to change. Leadership support
is critical to help remove obstacles and provide
encouragement.
Create short-term wins. Set early goals that are
easy to achieve and meet them.
Don’t give up. Foster and encourage determination
and persistence and report on ongoing progress.
Make change “stick.” Reinforce the change through
all aspects of the culture.

Openly Discuss the Challenges and Concerns

Depending upon your organization’s history and
employee population, staff members may be concerned
that hiring men and women without traditional social
services credentials will negatively impact the quality of
services provided to your clients. Or, they may be uneasy
about working directly with individuals who have the same
history of incarceration, addiction and/or homelessness as
your organization’s client population. Some employees may
believe it is important to maintain boundaries between staff
and clients and that hiring staff with life histories similar
to those of clients may break down these boundaries. To
help overcome any unease, offer employees opportunities to
voice their concerns, taking care they are not made to feel
they are “wrong” for sharing them. Present a realistic view
of the anticipated challenges. Additionally, organizational
leadership can model the acceptance of two beliefs that may
seem at odds:

Involving employees from all parts of the organization
in crafting the changes to hiring and staff development
practices should lead to broader buy-in.

As identified in the list above, the first step of successful
organizational change is to inspire staff and explain how the
objectives of the change are compelling. An organizational
shift to culturally competent hiring practices is particularly
timely given these emerging developments:
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1.	 Hiring men and women with experiential
knowledge and limited work histories will
strengthen your organization’s cultural competence
and service delivery capabilities, and
2.	 Hiring such women and men may result in some
initial discomfort and will require sensitivity,
flexibility and change.

Identify the Reasons to Adopt Culturally
Competent Hiring Practices

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Employment) and the “Ban the Box” movement
discussed in Section I. Such initiatives highlight an
increased interest at the federal and local levels
to change discriminatory policies and influence
attitudes in hiring decisions.
The research documenting the powerful impact
staff that have successfully navigated the reentry/
recovery process have on clients.
The increasing number of government funding
opportunities for culturally competent agencies.

The scope of the reentry crisis and the key role
employment plays in creating stability for men and
women returning home from prison.
The evolving legal landscape regarding employment
discrimination including the EEOC’s new initiative
E-RACE (Eradicating Racism and Colorism from
20

B. Retool Your Hiring Process

becomes a logical next step that is based on mutual
knowledge rather than a leap of faith. Another benefit is that
interns and volunteers develop social and work skills under
conditions that are less stressful than those of a full-time
job. Moreover, non-paid, or minimally paid, positions allow
for individuals receiving government benefits to continue
doing so while becoming more marketable. Finally, intern
and volunteer programs offer more “person power” to the
organization than the payroll alone can provide.	

Assess Organizational Capacity to Absorb
Employees with Life Experience and Minimal
Employment Histories

As your organization retools hiring processes to include
new employees with experiential knowledge and limited
employment histories, consider how many of this type
of employee (which Fortune calls their “Diamonds in the
Rough”) can be integrated into your agency at any given
time. These employees will typically require more training
and time-intensive supervision, and may also take longer to
achieve the same level of skill and productivity as employees
with more traditional backgrounds and work experience.
Therefore, you may wish to set hiring targets over time,
taking into account both the pace of culture change efforts
and organizational capacity to support and develop
“Diamonds in the Rough.”

A trainee position differs as the individual is trained
for a specific job at the organization. Trainees are placed
in positions on a trial basis, with an offer of employment
dependent on satisfactory performance.23 Trainees are
usually compensated at less than the salary of a person
with prior work experience and/or training, but at a level
at least commensurate with what they can command in the
marketplace, given their skills and experience. The trainee
program is valuable to an agency by increasing people
power in a cost effective way, training people in accordance
with their needs, and exercising informed decisions about
making firm offers of employment. The trainee, in turn,
gains a valuable apprenticeship and a good shot at a job.

Attract and Recruit Candidates with
Experiential Knowledge

In order to attract the best possible candidates, a
successful recruitment campaign is a critical first step. Good
candidates can be identified in a variety of ways:
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Consider hiring from your own client population.
You can make clients aware of your job postings and
ask staff for suggestions about current or previous
clients who might be a good fit.
Reach out to other service providers, Parole, and
Probation and let them know your organization is
looking to hire staff with life histories. Do all that
you can to generate “word-of-mouth” buzz.
Highlight your organization’s interest in employing
individuals with experiential knowledge in
promotional materials. When posting job
descriptions, affirmatively state that relevant
life experience is an advantage for jobs at your
organization. Avoid including requirements that
are not actually needed for the position (e.g., a
college degree or a certain minimal amount of prior
experience).

C. Identify Critical Job
Requirements

A promising practice that can be derived from Fortune’s
experience is the adoption of the “reverse engineering” of
job descriptions. Fortune’s managers, in cooperation with
Human Resources (HR) staff, identify the skills, personal
attributes, knowledge, and experience actually required to
perform a job and exclude criteria that are not necessary.
Adopting this approach means that your organization will
be less likely to “over-professionalize” a job, eliminating, as
Fortune puts it, “a large pool of candidates … (that you) want.”
It is important that HR and the hiring manager collaborate
in the “reverse-engineering” job definition process. It is the

Create Work Readiness and Expand Recruitment:
Internship, Volunteer and Trainee Programs

A powerful approach, used by both Fortune and
Thames Reach, to create work readiness in clients and other
potential candidates with experiential knowledge is through
volunteer, internship, and trainee programs.22 With respect
to internship and volunteer programs, the maximum value
to the organization and participants occurs when the tasks
assigned involve duties that develop marketable work
skills and appropriate workplace mindsets. Interns and
volunteers become known entities to the organization’s
employees, leaders, and participants, in turn, get to
know organizational values and ways of operating. After
organizational involvement, the offer of employment
22	

23	

As has been the case for Fortune and Thames Reach, you may be able
to identify some outside funding to cover costs and pay stipends.

21

In the case of Thames Reach, which has a formalized 12-month
trainee program, it is explicit up front that there is no guarantee of
employment once the training has been completed. Since 2005, most
participants have completed the program and Thames Reach or
another employer has hired them (Ireland 2010).

»»

HR manager who brings a broader view of the organization
and can provide insights into individual job definitions that
may be applicable across jobs (and across managers).24

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D.	 The Process of Assessing
Candidates with Experiential
Knowledge

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Adopt the Three-Axis Approach to Assessment
of Job Candidates

Fortune’s three-axis approach to the evaluation of
job candidates complements the reverse-engineering job
description process. Acknowledging the multifaceted nature
of individuals, Fortune considers three axes when looking at
a job candidate:
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Stability and personal growth;
Professional skill level; and
Track record of experience (either traditional or
alternative life experiences).

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A hiring decision should be based on a holistic
evaluation of the individual. With respect to considering
track records of experience for people with life histories, it
is critical to look for substitutes for traditional prior work
experience. For formerly incarcerated individuals, many of
these alternative experiences will have taken place in prison
(e.g., being a mentor, running a release program, being
a GED instructor). It is critical to treat the life histories
a job candidate shares with the client population (e.g.,
incarceration, substance abuse, homelessness) as strengths
rather than liabilities. It is this experiential knowledge that
facilitates cultural competence in the delivery of services
and creates powerful role models.

To solicit information, questions should be geared
toward opening the door to conversation in a natural and
unforced way. For instance, since the candidate will already
know your organization places a premium on experiential
knowledge relevant to the client population, simple
questions such as “Tell me about yourself;” or, “I notice this
gap in your work history. Can you tell me about that?” or, “I
see you have volunteered as a mentor to prisoners. Can you tell
me about that?” or “How did you get from there [incarceration
brought up in conversation] to here?” may help to generate
conversation about the candidate’s life experiences and
journey of personal growth. The interviewer should listen
for evidence that the candidate has taken responsibility for
his/her life choices, has learned from them, is self-aware
about what it takes to avoid self-destructive activities, and
has future goals—all of which have been identified by
the literature as signs of desistance and the adoption of a
prosocial orientation.

The Interview: Getting a True Read on the Three
Axes and Candidates’ Capabilities

A well-designed and in-depth interview process will
provide your organization with the best opportunity to
collect data across the three axes. Candidates who have life
history backgrounds and minimal work experience may
view interviews as minefields, making it difficult for them
to express their experiences, strengths, and struggles.25
Therefore, the way in which the interview is conducted
is very important. The interviewer’s knowledge about
incarceration, substance abuse, and homelessness, and his/
her ease and comfort in discussing them, is key to ensuring
a “true read” on the candidate’s full range of capabilities and
positional fit.
There are several strategies a staff member can adopt
to facilitate an interview that yields insight about the
candidate, including:

24	

25	

Specify up front the organization’s commitment to
being an equal opportunity employer.
Invite the candidate to be open about his/her history,
emphasizing that experiences such as incarceration,
substance abuse and homelessness (and the
recovery from same) are viewed as advantages at
the organization.26
Help to de-stigmatize the unvarnished discussion
of his/her life history. Not only is the information
important for potential employers, but also sharing
of his/her personal story may be cathartic for the
candidate. It also provides good practice for sharing
with future clients and possibly future employers.
If required, inform candidates of the organization’s
use of background checks. The motivation for being
open about one’s history should remain positive, not
punitive.
Solicit information related to the three axes discussed
above. Through the use of open-ended questions,
the interviewer can obtain information about a
candidate’s level of personal growth and stability.

Determining stability in recovery or desistance from
crime (axis 1) can be more difficult with a candidate who
has a limited employment history and a recent history of
reentry/recovery. Given the employment challenges often
experienced by individuals recently released from prison,
Fortune defines employment stability as being employed in
any job for a year. Insights to stability and personal growth
can also be garnered by exploring the details of long-term
participation in programs or commitments that candidates
have maintained over time, especially those that involve
“giving back” to others.

The assessment of professional skills (axis 2) can also be
challenging. Formerly incarcerated job candidates,

Several examples of reverse engineering job descriptions can be
found in Section II.
At Fortune, clients interested in applying for jobs are enrolled in
a course that prepares them for the interview, helps them build a
resume and portfolio of achievements, and advises them on how to
discuss their history.

26	

22

Of course, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers
from asking direct questions about disabilities (including HIV/
AIDS and past substance abuse problems). Employers can ask if a
candidate is currently engaged in illegal drug use. http://www.eeoc.
gov/eeoc/foia/letters/2008/ada_illegal_drug.html.

the self-awareness and accountability that is necessary
for clients’ successful reintegration into society and/or
recovery.

especially if coached by an agency, mentor or parole officer,
will likely have portfolios with certificates of completion
from in-prison work and/or treatment programs, trainings,
and internships. Encourage candidates to bring such
documentation to the interview and allow them to talk
about these experiences. The development and use of a
writing test or another measure of literacy is also helpful in
assessing professional skills.

Another sign that a candidate might not be a good fit
is if he or she speaks or behaves in ways that might be
viewed as negative or damaging to clients. Use of language
that feels disrespectful or volatile may be a symptom of
underlying cognitions or emotions that do not support the
type of climate your organization provides to clients. Or, the
candidate may lack the desire to “give back” or passion for
the work that your organization does. Reentry and recovery
work can be hard and stressful; therefore, employees
with passion are invaluable. An interviewer, then, should
trust his/her judgment when candidates do not convey the
characteristics or have the track record to indicate they are
ready and/or a good fit for serving clients.

Training staff on your agencies’ interviewing process
is a worthwhile investment. Role playing interviews with
reticent mock applicants, for example, will allow staff to
hone their interviewing, listening, and assessment skills
and receive feedback on their approach. Fortune conducts
a minimum of two interviews per candidate. For high-level
management positions, the second interview will be before
a panel of interviewers. For Fortune, having the HR director
do an initial screening interview has been a successful
technique. A partnership between HR and line management
makes particular sense when interviewing applicants
with non-traditional backgrounds as HR managers likely
hold a broader view of organizational needs. They are
also more likely to be familiar with the details of training
opportunities.

E. Training, Support and
Supervision Strategies

Once an employee with a history that mirrors your
client population is hired, there are six practices that help
to ensure that the needs of the organization, clients and
employees are met most effectively. They are:

References and Background Checks

With any potential new hire, references will need to
be checked. For applicants with traditional backgrounds,
requiring three references is typical. The same should
be required of candidates with life experience; however,
interviewers may need to be more flexible with respect
to the time period in which the reference interacted with
the candidate (e.g., someone the candidate has known
since before incarceration or shortly after incarceration).
Interviewers might also need to broaden the range of
experiences the references will attest to. It is most helpful
to speak to references that can provide evidence of personal
growth and stability, as well as a positive track record of
alternative experiences.

Whether or not to conduct background checks, and
when, is an important decision. Due to liability concerns and
grant requirements, it is a common practice in the social
services field. However, the decision to conduct background
checks must be informed by Title VII and state and local
laws. After having acquired information about an applicant’s
criminal conviction record, you will need to decide how the
information will be used, which must also be informed by
the laws in your state or local jurisdiction and Title VII, as
discussed in Section I.

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Effective agency orientation;
Job–training;
Continuing support, development and education;
Close supervision;
Regularly scheduled evaluations; and
Quick, assertive responses when issues arise.

Orientations, training programs, and systems of
supervision or evaluation should not differ between
employees with traditional work and educational histories
and those without. Rather, organizational-wide polices and
practices should be adopted that support
the retention and development of all staff. The following
sections will explore these strategies more in-depth.

Orientation: Acclimate New Employees to the
Agency and Assign Them a “Buddy”

New employees with experiential knowledge and
minimal professional work experience will likely have
anxiety about fitting in and doing well. Therefore, induct
them into the agency in a way that will ease their anxieties.
Expectations about work should also be managed and
it should be made clear that while they have special and
valuable experiential knowledge, they are not accorded
special status. In addition to the HR information typically
shared at a new employees orientation, include information
about:

Know Who Is Not a Good Fit for
Your Organization

Fortune and the research literature place a high
premium on evidence related to the candidate’s ability to
accept responsibility for the behaviors that contributed to
his/her life experiences. A candidate who blames others or
minimizes his/her own actions should raise concerns, as
it often indicates a lack of personal growth and awareness.
Such a candidate will not be capable of modeling to clients

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23

The mission, ethos, code of conduct, and overall
culture of the agency (how are clients, colleagues,
managers and others to be treated);
Etiquette in dress code, appropriate use of
computers, respectful language;
Safety information, including how to respond to a
threat of harm from a client;

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Expectations about timeliness, sick and vacation
leave, meal breaks, hours of work;
Guidelines around disclosing one’s history with
clients and colleagues;
Coping with stress;
Explanation of training, support, supervision and
evaluation; and
Introductions to or by the leadership of the agency.

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At orientation, new employees should be assigned a
buddy. The buddy should be an experienced member of staff
or management who volunteers to help acclimate the new
employee to the work environment but plays no supervisory
role. For example, the buddy can take the new employee
out to lunch on the first day, show the employee around the
workplace (e.g., explaining how to use the office machinery),
give insights into workplace culture and client/employee
relationships, and check in on the new employee frequently
(at least once a week initially). Not only will this help the
new employee feel welcomed and supported, but also
veteran staff members will assume a shared responsibility
for the success of the new hire.

Large agencies undergoing a period of rapid growth or
turnover might hire a cohort of new employees and offer
formal, centralized classroom type training to ensure uniform
instruction on core competencies at the very beginning
of their tenure with the organization. This is especially
useful if most of the new hires are in one job category.
For example, for the position of counselor, the training
might include core skills training (e.g., counseling 101,
motivational interviewing, clinical note-taking, needs and
risks assessments, treatment planning, interpersonal skills,
computer skills); knowledge-based training (e.g., information
about disability benefits, community resources); and agency
code of conduct and practices training (e.g., confidentiality
polices, strategies for disclosing one’s history to clients,
dealing with stress, office etiquette and dress code).

Training New Employees

1. Three General Training Approaches
Most new employees typically receive some form of
on-the-job training, particularly if they are starting in a
new line of work or just beginning their work careers. Onthe-job training is especially critical for new employees
with experiential knowledge and minimal work experience.
Depending on agency size and other factors, such as growth
and turnover rates, you may choose between three types of
training programs:
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A centralized and formalized training program
with classroom type training. The program can vary
in length from one to several months, depending
on the job, skill sets and knowledge required. It
can be followed by probationary placement in a job
position, after which the employee is evaluated and
may or may not be hired.
An organic, non-centralized training program
that primarily relies on one-on-one training and
close supervision, supplemented with formal
classroom type training as needed to advance skills.
The classroom training may be spread over time

as the new employee advances in positions or as
additional skill sets and new bases of knowledge
are required for the employee to master his/her job
(e.g., clinical note-taking or documentation course
for counselors).
A hybrid centralized and organic approach that
begins with group classroom training, followed by
job placement that is interspersed with additional
one-on-one or classroom training.

For a small to medium sized agency and/or an agency
that hires a few new employees each year, an organic,
non-centralized approach that focuses on one-on-one
training is likely to be more appropriate. Some agencies
that hire a sizeable number of people per year may, as does
Thames Reach, combine the two approaches. At Thames
Reach, new cohorts of trainees, including those with
traditional employment histories, participate in a 12-month
program in which they receive a month of centralized
classroom instruction, followed by placement in a job that
is interspersed with additional classroom training days
and ad hoc training as needed throughout the one-year
traineeship.27

Another practice to consider is forming partnerships
with other reentry agencies and/or local colleges or training
institutes to provide continuing education classes, thus
sharing expertise, space and costs.

2. The Scaffolding Approach to One-on-One Training

Whatever the training approach (e.g., centralized
classroom training, organic, decentralized approach, or
hybrid training), there will be a need for some direct
one-on-one training, especially for those new employees
with valuable experiential knowledge but limited work
experience or training. For this one-on-one training, a good
practice to adopt is the method of instruction known as
“scaffolding.”28
27	

28	

24

For detailed information about the Thames Reach training
approach see http://www.thamesreach.org.uk/what-we-do/useremployment/employing-service-users/traineeships/induction-andtraining/
Scaffolding instruction, as a teaching strategy, derives from the
socio-cultural theory work of Lev Vygotsky and his concept of “zone
of proximal development”(ZPD). The ZPD is basically the distance

a life coach to new employees. A life coach (who, like a
buddy, could be an experienced employee or manager, but
not the employee’s direct supervisor) volunteers to meet
periodically (e.g., quarterly) with new employees during
their first few years to, among other things:

Scaffolding instruction is incremental and involves
a close interaction between a supervisor, manager, or
senior employee—as the instructor—and the trainee. The
instructor selects activities or work skills that are just
beyond what the trainee can do alone. Starting with the
skills and knowledge the trainee possesses, the instructor
builds on these, bringing the trainee to the next level. As the
trainee works on advancing his/her skills, the instructor
takes responsibility for aspects of the job the trainee has not
yet learned. Over time, the trainee acquires more skills and
needs less supervision. Scaffolding techniques include:
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Simplifying or breaking down the task to make it
more manageable;
Providing specific instruction, expectations and
encouragement;
Incorporating simultaneous evaluation and
feedback;
Modeling the behaviors or skills at issue;
Role-playing;
Allowing the trainee to “shadow” someone already
in the position; and
Starting the trainee on a reduced caseload and, as
the trainee’s skills grow, increasing the caseload to
full capacity.

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Responding to Different Supervision Needs

The supervision of employees with life histories that
mirror the organization’s client population will be more
intensive for the first year or two, until appropriate skill
levels are achieved and the employee has adjusted to the
environment and stresses of work and reentry/recovery.
The supervision of such employees may differ from
supervision of other employees in three ways:
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Continuing Education and the Assignment
of Life Coaches

The professionalization of social service and nonprofit
work, and the increasingly demanding documentation
requirements imposed on grant recipients, puts pressure on
agencies to continually provide training opportunities to
their employees. With respect to employees with minimal
work histories, the importance of continuing education
goes beyond the need of the agency to maintain standards
of expected competencies and includes developing these
employees so that they have true opportunities for
pathways to careers. Those pathways could be lateral
(e.g., going from caseworker to senior caseworker to
supervising caseworker) or vertical (e.g., going from court
advocate to working in the policy and development unit of
the agency). Accordingly, agencies should encourage and
facilitate29 higher education opportunities, or the obtaining
of trainings/certifications, such as for substance abuse
counseling. Besides providing courses in core skills (e.g.,
computer skills, clinical note–taking, HIV/AIDS support), a
way to open pathways to careers is for agencies to support
employees in taking coursework in a range of areas such
as leadership skills, budgeting, grant–writing, or conflict
resolution in the work place.

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29	

Due to limited work history and diminished
social skills from incarceration or surviving very
marginally on the streets, supervision will likely
be more frequent and time-consuming. Initially, a
supervisor may need to meet with new employees
every few days or once a week.
Because some employees may have served long
prison sentences, supervision of employees with
experiential knowledge may involve acclimating
the employee to the outside world and dealing
with lingering “street code” or “incarceration code”
attitudes and beliefs, such as that “snitching” about a
client or colleague is wrong.
If the employee is in recovery or still facing reentry
issues (e.g., parole supervision, child support,
family unification issues, problems acquiring stable
housing), supervision may be more personal and
require a supportive and flexible environment.
Supervisors may need to pay special attention
to the potential dangers of burning out, getting
overwhelmed or over-identifying with a client’s
reentry/recovery vulnerabilities.

Given these needs, the standard type of supervision—in
which an employee reports directly to one supervisor
who deals primarily with work-related issues—will
likely be inadequate. At Fortune, the more intense, hybrid
supervision of work and personal issues is handled in
several ways. First, Fortune has a low one-to-five ratio
of supervisors to staff. Second, there is an open door
policy in which every supervisor is available as a resource
and support to each employee. Third, because Fortune’s
management includes a high number of individuals with
histories of incarceration and substance abuse, they
can supervise from their life experience and first-hand
understanding of the issues of reentry/recovery and how it
adds to the stress of working.

A recommended practice to assist employees in
developing a pathway to a career is for agencies to assign

between what an individual can do by herself, based on her skills,
experience and knowledge, and the next learning steps that will
ultimately help her achieve competence and independence and
become a self-regulating learner and problem solver (Hartman
2002).
This can be done through salary increases or through incentives
such as earning points in performance review evaluations.

Discuss where the employee’s interests lie within
the agency;
Identify skills needed for advancement and relevant
courses or trainings;
Explore career interests that might result in finding
employment outside the agency; and
Offer support and counseling around adjustments
to work.

25

be a constant is the employee with life experience should
be treated neither more favorably nor more punitively than
any other employee. To do otherwise invites resentment
and undermines accountability and the integrity of the
organization.

If your agency is just beginning to launch culturally
competent hiring practices, you may consider the
supervision approach adopted by Thames Reach. At Thames
Reach there is a “delineated supervision and support” model,
meaning that a dedicated supervisor provides the workrelated support and supervision, and a dedicated life coach
or mentor provides the career development and personal
support. Additionally, each employee is assigned a buddy
for other day-to-day work stress issues.30 In this way, the
responsibilities of support and supervision are shared.

If an employee is discharged, it is recommended
that a protocol be in place that includes conducting an
exit interview, when at all possible, to learn about the
circumstances and improve hiring decisions, training,
support, and/or supervision going forward. Looking back
at the original interview notes, as Fortune does, may help
identify, with the advantage of hindsight, whether there
were any red flags that may have been overlooked or
minimized.

Organizations might also consider offering training to
management to increase their cultural competence skills
in supervising employees with life histories that mirror
the client population. However, because managers provide
services to clients, they have already acquired some cultural
competence.

Conclusion

Periodically Evaluate New Employees

It is important to formally evaluate new employees on a
regular basis during their first year—quarterly, if possible,
but minimally at the end of six months and again at 12
months. As they undergo training, they should be provided
with frequent feedback, encouragement and constructive
criticism. This will help reduce the anxiety new employees
may feel, enhance their self esteem, and enable them to stay
focused on areas where they need to work harder. They will
also learn how to receive feedback, and, through modeling
supervisors, learn how to give constructive feedback. If
there are group trainings, the new employees can practice
giving and receiving feedback to each other, a skill they
will need when working with their clients. To increase
a new employee’s ability to self-reflect and cement their
new learning, consider having them keep daily journals of
progress made and areas in need of improvement.

This toolkit addresses how agencies can build “cultural
competence,” (i.e., the behaviors, attitudes and policies
that allow them to work most effectively with clients from
various racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds and with
differing life experiences) through the practice of hiring men
and women with similar backgrounds and life experiences
as the clients whom they serve. In many instances,
individuals with the same experiential knowledge as the
agency’s client population do not have the work experience
nor the academic credentials that traditional employees
do and so the agency’s hiring and development practices
must be adapted thoughtfully in order to maximize success.
The importance and urgency of the hiring of individuals
with experiential knowledge is supported by many current
forces—cultural, legal and practical—and reinforced by
the significant research evidence of this practice’s positive
impact on agencies, employees and clients when managed
well.

Formal ongoing evaluations of new employees in
terms of competencies achieved and gaps in learning
and development is valuable for all agencies. Assessment
tools should list the key skills, knowledge, behaviors,
and attitudes employees are expected to have for their
current position. Tools should also allow the trainees/
new employees to share thoughts about the trainings and
trainers, how they are getting on in their new positions, and
self-reflection. A quarterly or semi-annual review will help
to detect problems early and respond accordingly, as well as
to recognize progress made and boost confidence.

The experiences of two agencies are highlighted here:
one, The Fortune Society, founded by and with formerly
incarcerated individuals (i.e., members of the agency’s
client base) and two, Thames Reach, who decided to adapt
their hiring policies (by hiring those with the experience of
homelessness) in order to build cultural competence after
some twenty years of existence. While the histories and,
in some instances, the practices of the two agencies differ,
both of their stories give testimony to the great benefits and
accompanying challenges of hiring men and women with
deep and relevant experiential knowledge and without the
traditional track records of employment and education.

Responding When Issues Arise and
Learning from Mistakes

When management detects a problem in an employee
(whether it is a timeliness issue, unexcused absences,
disrespectful language, etc.), it is important to respond
quickly and appropriately. The safety to clients and
workplace demands prompt handling of infractions of
agency rules or practices. Responses will vary with the
circumstances of the infraction, but one thing that should
30	

In the last section of the toolkit, some promising hiring
and employee development practices are offered that can
help build your organization’s cultural competence. They
are based in the policies, approaches and experiences
of Fortune and Thames Reach and their effectiveness is
reinforced by the research literature. For most agencies,
adapting these practices will result in significant changes to
their operations; therefore, there are also evidence-based

See http://www.thamesreach.org.uk/what-we-do/useremployment/employing-service-users/traineeships/support-fortrainees/

26

recommendations for effectively leading change so as to
increase buy-in and ownership across your organization.
Of course, each organization is different and the promising
practices must be adapted to the specific culture, mission,
practices, and policies of your agency.

For more details about developing cultural competence
through hiring and employee development practices, see
the extensive reference list below. Or you may contact the
Fortune Society at www.fortunesociety.org.

Coalition Institute. Retrieved on October 29, 2010 from: http://www.
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Culturally Competent System of Care. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown
University Child Development Center.
Davidson, L. et al. 1999. “Peer support among individuals with severe
mental illness: A review of the evidence.” Clinical Psychology: Science and
Practice, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer), 165-187.

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PHOTOS BY: Amanda Morgan (Page 15); David Y. Lee for PWF and the
Fortune Society (Cover; Pages 5, 10, 11, 17, 20, 21, 24, 29)

29

CONTRIBUTORS
John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City
University of New York is a liberal arts college
dedicated to education, research and service in the
fields of criminal justice, fire science and related
areas of public safety and public service. It strives
to endow students with the skills of critical thinking
and effective communication; the perspective and moral judgment that result from
liberal studies; the capacity for personal and social growth and creative problem solving
that results from the ability to acquire and evaluate information; the ability to navigate
advanced technological systems; and the awareness of the diverse cultural, historical,
economic and political forces that shape our society.

The Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice works to
spur innovation and improve practice in the field of reentry by advancing knowledge;
translating research into effective policy and service delivery; and fostering effective
partnerships between criminal justice and non-criminal justice disciplines. To achieve
this mission, PRI develops, manages, and evaluates innovative reentry projects; provides
practitioners and policymakers with cutting edge tools and expertise; promotes education
opportunities for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals as a vehicle for
successful reentry and reintegration; and creates synergy across fields and disciplines.
The Fortune Society is a nonprofit social
service and advocacy organization, founded in
1967, whose mission is to support successful
reentry from prison and promote alternatives
to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric
of our communities. Fortune works to create a world where all who are incarcerated or
formerly incarcerated can become positive, contributing members of society. We do this
through a holistic, one-stop model of service provision that is based on more than forty
years of experience working with people with criminal records.

In 2007, The Fortune Society launched the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy
(DRCPP).While Fortune has always engaged in advocacy and community education, DRCPP
is focused on the coordination of Fortune’s policy development, advocacy, technical
assistance, training, and community education efforts. DRCPP integrates Fortune’s internal
expertise – the life experience of our formerly incarcerated staff and clients and our firsthand experience as a longstanding direct service provider.
The International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution
(ICCCR) is committed to developing knowledge and practice to promote
constructive conflict resolution, effective cooperation, and social justice.
Based at Teachers College, Columbia University, the center was founded
in 1986 under the direction of Professor Emeritus Morton Deutsch, one
of the world’s most respected scholars of conflict resolution. The ICCCR’s
mission is grounded in education: to support individuals, communities and organizations
in better understanding the nature of conflict and in developing skills and settings to help
them resolve conflict effectively. In addition, the Center’s pedagogy is based in research
and theory; applied research, including participatory action research, directly links the
creation of knowledge with its application to issues of social justice.

As part of the Center’s commitment to linking research and practice, researchers from
the ICCCR partnered with Fortune and PRI to provide scholarly and research support
in producing this toolkit. ICCCR researchers performed literature reviews, conducted
interviews, analyzed data and wrote various sections of this toolkit.
30

ABOUT THIS TOOLKIT
This toolkit addresses several interrelated
issues regarding the successful reentry into
society of formerly incarcerated men and
women. First, there is a reentry crisis of unparalleled
proportion currently facing communities in the
United States. Because incarceration both
profoundly impacts those who experience it and
disproportionately affects low-income people
of color, the response to it needs to be culturally
competent across a spectrum of issues.
Second, there is an important employment
component to individuals’ reentry experience. While
stable employment is critical to the successful
reintegration into society of those returning home,
the formerly incarcerated nonetheless confront
significant barriers to employment, including
discrimination based on their conviction records.
Finally – and this is the core of this toolkit – one
way to address both of these issues is to build
“cultural competence” within reentry services by
hiring formerly incarcerated men and women to
reflect the experiences and realities of the reentry
population and provide services more effectively.

 

 

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