Modeling for Success: Strengthening Homeland Security through Vocational-Based Offender Programming

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BrENTly Travelbee


The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, with a prison population of more than two million. The majority of offenders are released back into the communities after serving their time, but unfortunately, an average of over 40 percent of offenders will return to confinement.[1]

The loss of one’s freedom does not always deter criminal acts even after incarceration, as evidenced by the rate of recidivism in the United States. While imprisonment serves as a form of punishment, correctional agencies should also consider rehabilitative efforts to reduce recidivism. Additionally, reducing recidivism will enhance public safety, improve societal relationships of offenders and their families, and reduce the enormous cost generated by criminal acts and incarceration.

Offenders who do not secure employment are overwhelmingly more likely to return to prison than offenders who obtain a stable, living wage and opportunity for advancement.[2] Working against those released from prison is the unemployment rate for offenders, which is estimated to be five times higher than the national unemployment rate.[3]

Some offenders enter prison with a high school diploma or general education diploma (GED), and most will leave with a GED if they did not have one. However, they may still lack the skills or credentials to obtain and keep good jobs after release. This study builds on previous analyses of correctional agencies that provide offenders with the training and skills needed to obtain employment to improve the chances of offender success and reduce recidivism.

The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), like many other correctional agencies, is implementing programs to better prepare offenders for release. These “reentry” programs focus on providing the offender with a pathway from one’s first day of incarceration. The programs are designed for each offender to complete courses in primary education, substance abuse, cognitive thinking, career counseling, parenting, employment readiness, budget management, and the means to secure vital documents. MDOC understands the importance of offender success and how post-release employment affects recidivism and public safety.

MDOC has implemented the Vocational Village pilot program, a “first-of-its-kind skilled trades training program that aims to provide a positive learning community for prisoners who are serious about completing career and technical education.”[4] The Village is part of a holistic approach that incorporates skilled-trade training, teaches effective communication, integrates soft skills, and provides credentialing for offenders completing coursework.

The program is piloting at two MDOC sites, where offenders participating in the program live in the same housing unit and have a structured schedule resembling a typical workday and workweek. Offenders coordinate with employment counselors to select from available courses for jobs that are currently in demand in Michigan. The environment encourages peer support among offenders and staff, resulting in a therapeutic environment that helps offenders to increase their chance of success after release.

The thesis had three goals: to evaluate vocational-based offender programs, to identify components for program implementation, and to create a conceptual model. Methodologies for research consisted of a literature review, qualitative assessment, and local knowledge case study of MDOC’s Vocational Village program. This thesis examined the components of the Village and other vocational-based training programs for offenders as well as recommendations to enhance current programs. A review of evaluated practices and recommendations provided a road map for correctional agencies considering the implementation of similar programs designed to strengthen offender success through skills training and employment.

Using the information and conceptual model contained in this thesis, agencies might construct their own framework for instituting a vocational-based program. That information includes program considerations, from evaluating in-demand jobs to developing programs; physical plant needs; technology and classroom instruction; employment readiness; resource considerations; and supervision after release from confinement.



[1] Mariel Alper, Matthew R. Durose, and Joshua Markman, 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014) (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2018),‌content/pub/pdf/18upr9yfup0514.pdf.

[2] John Rakis, “Improving the Employment Rates of Ex-Prisoners Under Parole,” Federal Probation 69, no. 1 (June 2005): 12–22.

[3] Lucius Couloute and Daniel Kopf, Out of Prison & Out of Work: Unemployment among Formerly Incarcerated People (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, July 2018), https://www.prisonpolicy.‌org/‌reports/outofwork.html.

[4] “Vocational Village,” Michigan Department of Corrections, accessed October 27, 2019, https://www.‌,4551,7-119-33218_75514—,00.html.

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