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Annals of International Occupational Therapy, 2020;3(4):194–199
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In U.S. prisons, the number of women who are incarcerated is growing faster than the number of men, and addressing their vocational needs is key to supporting their success after release. This study examined women's self-reported vocational aspirations and interests and the related challenges and barriers to reentry.


This study included women who had been incarcerated for 31 to 135 days (N = 200) in one correctional facility. Participants self-reported their employment history and future career interests. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) Interest Profiler was used to explore individual vocational and personality (Holland) traits.


Of the 114 participants, the majority (61%) reported working within a health care system as a health care provider (24%), nonspecific career choice (18%), self-employment (10%), and working in construction or a factory setting (9%). The top four individual personality traits among participants included Enterprising (leadership), 32%; Conventional (detail oriented), 25%; Social (supportive), 22%; and Realistic (practical), 20%. Most participants (70.8%) indicated that serving time in prison may lead to barriers after reentry, such as different or negative treatment and difficulty obtaining employment.


Based on the findings, further exploration of employment experiences with use of the individual O*NET questionnaire results may inform meaningful occupational and vocational goals that correspond with the participant's inherent characteristics. [Annals of International Occupational Therapy. 2020;3(4):194–199.]


The number of women incarcerated in the United States is increasing. Rates are significantly higher than those for men in many states because of expansive law enforcement efforts, harsher drug sentencing laws, and barriers to societal reentry after incarceration (Sawyer, 2018). In general, within U.S. state prisons, women are more likely than men to be incarcerated; since 1978, the number of women in state prisons nationwide has grown from more than twice the rate of men to more than nine times the rate of men (Sawyer, 2018). The disproportional rate of incarceration of women as a result of drug-related offenses alone increased from 12% in 1986 to 25% in 2016 (Sawyer, 2018). Historically, within the United States, more than half of women prisoners completed high school, fewer than half reported being employed at the time of their arrest, and more than 78% indicated being a parent (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2003). Also, national statistics have historically shown average earnings among women before incarceration being less than the poverty level, and most of the women had experience in customer service or clerical fields (typically low-wage jobs) (Bloom et al., 2003; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2018).

Evidence has shown that vocational training programs have reduced recidivism, measured through reincarceration data among adult offenders (Richmond, 2014; Young & Mattucci, 2006). However, programs for women in U.S. correctional facilities have not fully identified the vocational interests of incarcerated women and have provided training for lower-paid professions compared with vocational programs in men's facilities (Snodgrass, Jenkins, & Tate, 2017). Prevocational and vocational development plays a fundamental role in occupational/life activities and work participation (American Occupational Therapy Association, 2017), which “contributes to an individual's sense of identity and development of meaning and purpose in life” (Dorsey, Ehrenfried, Finch, & Jaegers, 2018, p. 781). Further, work “adds structure and routine to the day, provides valuable opportunities for making social connections and contributions to society, and allows us to seek financial security” (Dorsey et al., 2018, p. 781). Occupational therapy practitioners address work, including employment interests, pursuits, job seeking, job acquisition, and job performance. Together with work and vocational interests, skilled, evidence-informed assessment and interventions consider client factors, such as values, beliefs, and spirituality, as well as mental, sensory, and neuromusculoskeletal functions (American Occupational Therapy Association, 2017). Occupational therapy services in the U.S. justice settings (e.g., jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers) are relatively emerging and growing through grassroots efforts (Jaegers et al., in press). However, these services are well established in other parts of the world (Jaegers, Barney, & Aldrich, 2019).

As the rate of incarceration for women continues to grow (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018), identifying the vocational interests of these women will assist with the development of vocational skills, the pursuit of meaningful societal roles, and reintegration after incarceration, which will enable women to identify meaningful work occupations and overcome vocational barriers and challenges. There is a strong association between vocation and recidivism leading to incarceration (Esperian, 2010). Vocational satisfaction can significantly contribute to an individual's chance of being a self-sufficient and law-abiding citizen after incarceration (Esperian, 2010; Meyer & Shippen, 2016).

Perceived vocational barriers have significantly influenced vocational choices and aspirations within incarcerated populations, and perceived barriers have been linked to an individual's self-confidence, potentially deterring the vocational planning process (Rojewski, 2005). Understanding the role of these barriers is essential for women prisoners (Luzzo & McWhirter, 2001) and is a critical element in the vocational reentry process. Vocational barriers can compromise career aspirations (Rojewski, 2005) and historically have been correlated with a decrease in self-confidence, derailing the reentry planning process (Green, 2013). Perceived vocational barriers can include racism, the stigma associated with a criminal record, financial status, limited education and experience, time away from the workforce, child care issues, and lack of transportation. The social cognitive career theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994) suggests that perceived vocational barriers may directly block the translation of vocational interests into career aspirations and subsequently prevent career aspirations from becoming obtainable goals.

To explore the vocational needs of incarcerated women, this study analyzed self-reported vocational aspirations, interests, and related challenges and barriers to societal reentry among women residing in a medium-security prison.


In July 2018, an eight-member participatory research team worked with a state women's correctional facility to plan the purpose and procedures for this study. This study was approved by the institutional review board at the sponsoring university in September 2018, and implementation of the study occurred in December 2018.

This study used a cross-sectional design with a purposive sample at one Midwestern U.S. correctional facility. Women who had been incarcerated within the correctional facility for 31 to 135 days were recruited. Study flyers were shared, and those who expressed interest in participating were given study information in person from the investigators and offered the opportunity to ask questions about the study. Informed consent rights and procedures were provided to all participants through verbal explanation and paper documentation. Participants completed a self-administered survey via iPad web-based technology. The survey included 78 items and was administered over a period of 20 minutes. Participants who completed the questionnaire received a printed summarized report of their Occupational Information Network (O*NET) Interest Profiler (IP) vocational interest responses and related Holland (Holland, Whitney, Cole, & Richards, 1969) categories (National Center for O*NET Development, 2018). The reported information was managed and encrypted by a secured website,


Demographic variables included age, race/ethnicity, parenting status, marital status, highest educational level achieved, and length of current incarceration.

Employment history was obtained with an open-ended question that asked participants to specify their most recent job held before conviction.

Future career interests were determined by asking participants an open-ended question about their career goals after incarceration.

The Perception of Barriers Modified Scale (Luzzo & McWhirter, 2001; McWhirter, 1997) was used to explore anticipated ethnic and gender discrimination and other vocational barriers. Perceived barriers were rated with a Likert scale of 1 to 5, with 5 indicating “strongly agree.”

The O*NET IP, an open-access tool sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, was used to explore career interests matched with individual personality traits. Participants were asked to indicate how they would feel about a variety of vocations based on a Likert scale response of 1 to 5, with 5 indicating “strongly like.” Each of the 60 vocational options in the questionnaire corresponded with a Holland Occupational RIASEC model (Holland et al., 1969) vocational code/type. This model provided an accurate, reliable profile of the women's work-related and occupational interests and was designed to narrow vocational search activities.

The Holland Codes (Holland, 1996) include Realistic—practical, physical, hands-on, mechanically inclined; Investigative—analytical, intellectual, scientific, explorative; Artistic—creative, original, independent, expressive; Social—cooperative, supporting, helping, healing/nurturing; Enterprising—competitive, a leader, persuading, administering over; and Conventional—detail oriented, organizing, clerical, structured. The Realistic type prefers a work environment that involves working with tools, mechanical or electrical drawings, machines, or plants and animals. This occupational type values practical things that can be seen, touched, and used. The Investigative type prefers the use of information to achieve, rather than their association with people and/or things. This occupational type values analytical, intellectual, and scholarly work tasks. The Artistic type prefers creative, innovative, and intuitive work tasks. This occupational type values self-expression within the creative arts. The Social type prefers interpersonal interaction, values the welfare of others, and avoids participating in mechanical or technological activities. This occupational type values solving social problems and values being helpful, friendly, and trustworthy. The Enterprising type prefers to lead and persuade people and to sell things or ideas. This occupational type values success in leadership or business and values being energetic, ambitious, and sociable. The Conventional type prefers maintaining orderly routines, values material accomplishment, and may avoid unstructured activities. This type prefers a work environment that requires clerical and organizational skills, rewards dependability, and follows a set plan.


Data were summarized with descriptive statistics and a rank order analysis for the significance and prevalence of Holland Code categories. Open-ended items were coded and underwent thematic analysis by independent raters and a consensus process.


A total of 114 participants of the available cohort of 200 (57%) completed the electronic questionnaire. Demographic characteristics are shown in Table 1. Of the respondents, 56% had resided within the current correctional facility for 91 to 135 days. Participant age ranged from 18 to 64 years. Most were either 25 to 34 years (42.1%) or 35 to 44 years (30.7%). Participants were predominantly White (n = 101, 88.6%). For educational attainment, participants indicated “some high school” (28.1%), “high school/general equivalency diploma” (31.6%), “some college” (35.1%), “college graduate” (4.4%), and “other” (0.8%). In addition, 48.6% (n = 53) reported that they were “single, or never married or partnered.” One hundred two (89.5%) reported having one to six children, and the average number of children per participant was 2.5 (SD = 1.22).

Table 1

Table 1 Demographic Characteristics of Women Incarcerated at a Medium-Security Institution (N = 114)

Characteristicn (%)
Length of incarceration, days
  31–6030 (26.3)
  61–9020 (17.5)
  91–13564 (56.2)
Age, years
  < 2514 (12.3)
  25–3448 (42.1)
  35–4435 (30.7)
  > 4417 (14.9)
  White101 (88.6)
  Black5 (4.4)
  Hispanic/Latino4 (3.5)
  Other4 (3.5)
  Some high school32 (28.1)
  High school degree/general equivalency diploma36 (31.6)
  Some college40 (35.1)
  College graduate5 (4.4)
  Other1 (0.8)
Marital status
  Single or never married or partnered53 (48.6)
  Married/partnered11 (10.1)
  Married or partnered, but currently separated19 (17.4)
  Divorced20 (18.3)
  Widowed6 (5.6)
  Declined to answer5 (4.4)
Parenting status
  Has children, range 1–6102 (89.5)
  No children12 (10.5)

A summary of reported perceived barriers is shown in Figure A (available in the online version of the article). The highest level of agreement was selected, with most of the respondents (70.8%) indicating that serving time in prison may lead to different treatment in comparison to other employees, difficulty obtaining employment, and negative treatment (M = 3.5-4.1, SD ≤ 1). Difficulty obtaining employment with flexible hours was another barrier reported by 30.7% of participants (M = 2.89, SD ≤ 1). Less frequently identified barriers were gender and race (M = 1.99-2.85, SD ≤ 1).

Figure A.
Figure A.

Perceived Barriers to Reentry Among Women Incarcerated (n =114)

Scale: 1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree

For employment history, respondents reported working in the fast food industry (16.7%), retail/sales (15.8%), and factory/industrial plants (8.3%) within a health care system (0.9%). Future career interests included working within a health care system as a health care provider (23.7%), no preference for any specific career choice (17.5%), self-employment (10.5%), and construction/factory industry (8.8%). A detailed overview of employment and future career interests is shown in Figure B (available in the online version of the article).

Figure B.
Figure B.

Self-Reported Past Employment and Future Career Aspirations Among Women Incarcerated (n =114)

Figure C (available in the online version of the article) shows the percentages of corresponding Holland Code categories based on participants' responses: 31.6% aspired to Enterprising occupations, 25.4% aspired to Conventional occupations, 21.9% aspired to Social occupations, 20.2% aspired to Realistic occupations, 10.5% aspired to Investigative occupations, and 7.0% aspired to Artistic occupations.

Figure C.
Figure C.

Holland coded career aspirations among women incarcerated using the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) Interest Profiler (IP), N=114

Based on the O*NET IP, the combined types with the highest ratings were Enterprising–Conventional–Social and Enterprising–Conventional–Realistic. The existing correctional facility vocational training programs that corresponded to the most prevalent occupational types were business technology office management, culinary arts and restaurant management, and customer service representative. The suggested expansion and/or addition of vocational training programs at the correctional facility site that corresponded to the most prevalent occupational and vocational types were customer service, administrative, finance, and/ or office management training in the areas of hospitality, manufacturing, mechanics, transportation, and health care.


This study examined self-reported vocational aspirations and perceived vocational barriers for women experiencing incarceration. The participants were primarily younger to middle aged, had a high school education, and were single (unpartnered). Because most of the cohort reported unpartnered/single motherhood (73.7%), it is important to tailor vocational training to this demographic. Unemployed single women are at higher risk for poverty (Damaske, Bratter, & Frech, 2017). Recent studies indicated “the need for a strengths-based approach to career intervention that builds on existing skills and emphasizes identity exploration, uncovering core beliefs and vocational values” (Snodgrass et al., 2017, p. 29) and that specifically targets and delineates goals and barriers and uses interpersonal skills (Green, 2013; Snodgrass et al., 2017). Women who have a high school education or greater (71.1% of the study participants) are more likely than their less educated counterparts to have been employed full time for longer periods before incarceration (Blitz, 2006; Snodgrass et al., 2017).

Addressing Perceived Barriers to Reentry

The most often cited barrier to reentry was the incarceration record. Women reported that they may experience negative treatment because of a history of incarceration and may have more difficulty getting hired compared with individuals who have not served time in prison. Thus, vocational skills training should address potential anxiety, fear, and apprehension about these barriers. Perceived vocational barriers can be viewed as internal or external conditions that are detrimental to career development and that affect individual career choices (Green, 2013; Swanson & Woitke, 1997). An individual's perception of vocational barriers has been shown to be more important than whether actual barriers exist, and programming to address these concerns is warranted (Green, 2013; Swanson & Woitke, 1997).

Strategies to address barriers to reentry include occupation-based approaches that address roles, habits, and routines and are focused on individuals' goals for transition and community integration (Jaegers et al., in press). Continued and further development of cognitive behavioral strategies to address self-management techniques show promise (Nyamathi et al., 2018) for obtaining career satisfaction after incarceration and decreasing long-term rates of recidivism (Clark, 2010). The use of confidence-building strategies during group and individual training with evidence-based approaches, such as skilled and guided journaling interventions, also may be beneficial. In addition to the implementation of evidence-based approaches, matching identified vocational Holland-type categories through the O*NET IP with a list of specified employers can help to guide women through the career exploration/job search process based on their specific needs.

Exploring Previous Employment and Future Career Interests

Differences were found in participants' job interests compared with their job history before incarceration. The most frequent types of previous employment reported were food service/culinary arts and retail/sales. The top two future interests reported were health care and unknown (56.1%). These results may be related to factors such as a work history consisting of lower-complexity occupations. Although the women reported the greatest interest in a career as a health care provider (23.7%), the Holland Enterprising type was the most common (i.e., competitive, a leader, persuading, administering over) category, identified through the O*NET IP (31.6%), and this type does not specifically include health care professions. The next most frequent personality descriptor was Conventional, which focuses on business, finance, and marketing. This type matches with the third-highest job type, business owner/self-employed. Approximately 20.2% of the participants chose Realistic occupations, which include information technology, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, and logistics. Based on this summary, further exploration of previous employment and future employment plans, with the use of individual O*NET IP results, may help to inform occupational and vocational career goals that correspond with inherent personal characteristics.

Implications for Occupational Therapy Practice

This study assessed vocational interests among incarcerated women before incarceration and before release. Use of the O*NET IP and Holland Codes and identification of perceived barriers to reentry employment provided useful client-centered results to inform interventions for transition. Understanding perceived barriers provides insight for approaching motivation, strength building, and prevocational skills during incarceration. Women may believe that employment is not possible, is too far in the future (because of their release date), and is not an important priority during their day-to-day prison routines. Occupation-based interventions are necessary to develop prevocational skills (e.g., time management, emotional regulation, and executive function as well as parenting and social skills) to prepare for employment after release.

Limitations and Future Research

This study evaluated women at one medium-security correctional facility in the Midwestern United States. Therefore, the results are not generalizable to other locations or types of justice settings. The study team had direct contact with the participants, which allowed for a better understanding of the purpose of the study. However, participants' responses may not fully represent their views because of inability to explore missing data. Further study is warranted to analyze the fidelity of the results through evaluation of responses from women who have resided in the institution for longer than 135 days or who are scheduled for prerelease. A rigorous, large-scale study is needed to determine the effectiveness of the O* NET outcomes and programming to address perceived barriers in justice settings.


The use of the O*NET IP, Holland Codes, and perceived barriers to reentry can inform prerelease occupational therapy assessment and person-centered and occupation-based interventions for women experiencing incarceration. Additional study is needed to explore the effect of vocational assessment on women's readiness for employment, ability to seek employment, and long-term employment after prison transition.

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