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International Practice Forum Special Series I-O Psychology Helps Heal the World (Pt 3): Using Industrial-Organizational Psychology to Facilitate Restorative Change With a State Prison Population

Lynda Zugec, The Workforce Consultants; and Walter Reichman, Org Vitality

In this issue, we continue on our exciting new development for the International Practice Forum! With Walter Reichman (OrgVitality) and a number of I-O psychology practitioners and academics, we explore the ways in which “Industrial-Organizational Psychology Helps Heal the World.” Through a series of articles, we present real and actionable ways in which I-O academics and practitioners have an impact in innovative and creative ways and how they have been helping to heal the world!

Using Industrial-Organizational Psychology to Facilitate Restorative Change With a State Prison Population

Brian D. Cawley
Calvin College

Laura J. Shankster-Cawley
Talent Asset Advisors

Nicole Karl 
Calvin College Center for Social Research

Statistics on crime and the prison system in our country are sobering. Headlines and news feeds are filled each day with dire stories of crimes and abuses that have a dramatically negative influence on our society. For example, here are just a few grim stats from a recent report produced by the United States Bureau of Justice1:


    • Approximately two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years of release, and three-quarters (76.6%) were arrested within 5 years.
    • More than a third (36.8%) of all prisoners who were arrested within 5 years of release were arrested within the first 6 months after release, with more than half (56.7%) arrested by the end of the first year.
    •  A sixth (16.1%) of released prisoners were responsible for almost half (48.4%) of the nearly 1.2 million arrests that occurred in the 5-year follow-up period.


As I-O psychologists, we invest our time and talents in careers studying the intersection of people and work. We are specialists trained to observe and diagnose behavior within organizational contexts to drive organizational performance. Certainly, a fair degree of our work involves those preparing to enter new jobs and even students early on in their vocational journeys. Our ability to measure individuals’ unique constellations of KSAOs undoubtedly helps people find work in which they can succeed and, in turn, helps contribute to the success of organizations at large. However, our target group is typically those already actively engaged in the job search process with relatively easy access to information about organizations, jobs, and themselves.

Clearly, there are populations of potential employees that we are unable to reach through traditional avenues; one such population gaining increased attention is that of incarcerated individuals. As a society, we are slowly engaging in more constructive conversations about how we can collectively embrace the restorative power of work to not only ease societal reentry of former offenders but also to reduce recidivism rates. However, the process is complicated by a web of legal, cultural, and societal limitations—not the least of which is employers’ unwillingness to seemingly “take a risk” on someone with a felony conviction. 

As academic practitioners, we are continually challenged by our students to articulate not only what makes work scientifically “good,” but also to discuss the broader purpose of work in our lives. In our journey of understanding the inherent restorative power of work, we have been challenged by the thought that for some in our society, the concept of meaningful employment seems unattainable. This is due to the figurative and literal bars that have resulted from various life choices and circumstances, and create a real barrier for those individuals who are ready to take their place in the world. While we were asking ourselves questions surrounding the restorative power of work, we learned of some groundbreaking work being done by the professionals of the level II, medium security Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, less than an hour away from our classroom in Grand Rapids.

In their own words, their unique Vocational Village Program “is 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 educations.”2  Prisoners are not only enrolled in full days of training and classroom instruction that mimic a real work environment, they also receive state and nationally recognized certifications in their trade upon successful completion of the certification process and graduation. Given the nationwide shortage of employees in the skilled trades, the prison has found employers throughout the state willing to recruit from the offender population and the placement rate of graduates is currently over 70%. The offenders are filling a vital need for the employers, but the transition to gainful employment is not without pitfalls for many of the graduates. Although the employers have reported that the graduates’ technical skills are solid, many of the Vocational Village Program graduates lack, or are unaware of how to demonstrate, general employability competencies (e.g., dependability and reliability, adaptability and flexibility, initiative, professionalism, teamwork), which makes the on-boarding and probationary period challenging.

We approached the prison leadership with a proposal to create and administer a Developmental Assessment Center for Vocational Village Program to students who are nearing their graduation and parole dates. The center provided an assessment of their general employability competencies and produced development reports for each offender to use as they prepared not only for employment but also for the start of a career in the skilled trades. For some of them, this was their first time achieving employment in something other than entry-level, part-time jobs. The process was developed and administered by 30 upper-level undergraduate students enrolled in an industrial-organizational psychology course at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, under the direct supervision and guidance of two professors. In addition, a team of experienced assessors from the business and professional community were recruited to provide the offenders with “real-world” feedback while also giving the employers insights into the program and the competency levels of this cohort of graduates. This way, they could further communicate the benefit of the program to additional potential employers of the graduates.

The professors and research assistant who served as the project leaders began the planning process 2 months prior to engaging the college students in the work. The project included:

  1. Needs assessment with instructors, employers and a review of the literature to identify the assessment competencies;
  2. Development of an assessment protocol consisting of psychometric assessments and feedback via the jobZology® platform (values, interests, personality, and workplace preferences), a team project solving simulation, and a structured competency based interview;
  3. Development and delivery of participant preparation materials;
  4. Virtual training of 44 assessors;
  5. Administration of the center to 32 offender participants within a 3-hour assessment window physically inside the prison;
  6. Writing of reports containing developmental feedback on each competency for the participants.

The direct benefits to the offenders are quite typical of any assessment process but with a unique lens. For some, their familiarity with formal hiring assessments was minimal, but now they gained the opportunity for recruitment by several international corporations in Michigan who employ state-of-the-art hiring systems. Thus, the men were introduced to new assessment tools, such as jobZology®, that they may potentially encounter in the regular recruiting process and were given the opportunity to “prepare/practice” their performance before the event. The preparation process targeted their attention on competencies (beyond technical skills) that are important to employers. Although the instructors and prison staff reinforce many of these competencies, it easy for the offenders to “brush them off” and not take the feedback seriously. Therefore, the entire conversation leading up to the actual assessment became an important source of development. The event itself generated a tangible energy among the offenders as they were able to engage with one another and provide support to one another during their orientation time, team problem-solving exercise, and when escorted to their individual interview rooms. The assessment evening started with a sense of quiet anticipation and ended with engaging conversations, laughter, and, for many, an eagerness to receive and read their development report.

As with any service learning initiative, our college students received many benefits from their participation as well. First, they were able to engage in a multicultural experience involving interactions with individuals from varying cultural perspectives within the unique institutional culture of a prison. Although our student body consists of roughly 30% international and/or students of color, the interactions at the prison gave them exposure to the unique culture that develops within correctional facilities. Throughout the project, students reported that their preconceptions of prison life and incarcerated individuals had been radically different from the reality they experienced. It was typical for students to be somewhat reserved upon entering the prison, but almost without exception, we witnessed radical transformations as they engaged in conversations about shared experiences such as the challenges of finishing classwork, preparing resumés, contemplating vocational choices, and the process of job hunting. Second, they not only learned the theories supporting assessment and development, and discovered the challenges of translating such theories to the administrative realities facing organizations, but they were able to build relationships with people they were serving. Suddenly the long hours of creating behaviorally anchored rating scales (BARS) and designing a group problem solving activity that could be conducted with “prison-approved supplies” became easier because they did not want to let the offenders down. Several students even decided to volunteer as tutors or interns at the prison because of this project. Finally, they were given a unique perspective on the restorative power of work as they saw first hand the way the men “lit up” when answering questions about their work, when they proudly displayed the results of their training, and when the men talked with utter astonishment about the fact that for the first time in their lives they may actually obtain benefits like healthcare and even a 401k. The students were struck that these “standard benefits” that many college graduates take for granted represented real life-changing potential.

Of course, the offenders and our students were not the only ones transformed. As project leaders and I-Os within both academia and applied settings, we have been further convicted that we have been so busy studying the intersection of people at work that we have looked past the restorative power of “work” itself. Engaging with individuals for whom the opportunity to work has been taken from them and is now once again within reach has allowed us to witness the immense power work has to restore purpose and dignity. While using our training to help restore the lives of our fellow citizens through developing their skills for re-entry into the workforce, we have to take a step back and first remember and appreciate the restorative power of work for us all, and what that means for us all to flourish in our work environments.

Do you know of someone who is using I-O psychology to heal the world?

WE NEED YOU AND YOUR INPUT! We are calling upon you, the global I-O community, to reach out and submit your experiences for future columns. Give us your insights from lessons learned as you help heal the world.

To provide any feedback or suggestions on the International Practice Forum, please send an email to the following address:


[1] Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns From 2005 to 2010–Update.




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