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Effective Practices for Counselling Ex-Offenders

Building relationships with ex-offenders takes time. Trust is often an issue. However, by taking time to build these relationships, you can be a model for clients to use in building and maintaining other healthy relationships.

What do I wish I’d known when I first started working with ex-offenders?—“[I wish I’d known] how important it is to leave your biases at the door and deal with clients where they are today and not to focus on where they have come from, their offences and their violation of society. When you do that, you’re keeping them in the past and getting in the way of them moving forward.”

Qualities of effective counsellors

Counsellors’ personal beliefs

Beliefs about ex-offenders influence how counsellors relate to clients. Reflect on your own values, beliefs, and assumptions about criminal convictions as a part of social identity.

When career counselling ex-offenders, keep these key ideas in mind:

  • Each person deserves to be treated as unique.
  • Labels should be avoided whenever possible.
  • Each person has the potential to grow and change.
  • Growth occurs in situations where clients feel trusted and empowered.

Be aware that your cultural background, beliefs, and world views may, at times, affect your ability to help your clients. Professional reflection supports the development of self-awareness, which is an important competency in counselling. You may want to reflect on your own belief systems by:

  • Examining your assumptions about human behaviour, values, biases, preconceived notions, and personal limitations
  • Becoming aware of how ex-offenders fit into your world view
  • Examining how your world view affects your interactions with clients who are ex-offenders

Strength-based approach

Finding strengths—“In corrections work, it is easy to ignore the fact that every individual also possesses some strengths, no matter how tenuous. This means that you have to assume that the parolees know something and have learned from their life experiences. The parolees also need to believe that you respect them and think that they can build something out of their lives.”

Rebecca Deguara provides some valuable insights into using a strength-based approach with offenders. She advocates for continuing to address issues that may have led to the offence. For example, she uses relapse prevention techniques to help clients deal with substance abuse. She has found this strength-based approach to be refreshingly positive as it often opens the door to new possibilities.

The following types of interview questions help clients identify their strengths:

  • Survival questions. Given what you have gone through in your life, how have you managed to survive so far?
  • Support questions. What people have given you special understanding, support, and guidance?
  • Possibility questions. What are your hopes, visions, and aspirations?
  • Esteem questions. When people say good things about you, what are they likely to say?
  • Exception questions. When things were going well in your life, what was different?

Using strength-based interview strategies:

  • Establishes a client-focused, collaborative process with clients
  • Empowers clients by helping them identify their own strengths
  • Reinforces client autonomy

Strength-based strategies work best when they are woven through all interactions with clients. They are not stand-alone strategies, but part of the larger career-building process.

Strategies for building life skills

During incarceration, the decisions that offenders are allowed to make are limited. The institutional model focuses on managing the population as a whole, as opposed to managing independent individuals. Inmates are expected to be followers and make few decisions of their own.

The transition from the institution to the community, including employment, challenges ex-offenders to assume control and take responsibility for themselves, their actions, and the direction of their lives.

For clients who have not had the chance to develop these skills, life skills training builds a stronger base for successful entry into employment. The following are important parts of life skills training:

  • Appropriate attitudes and behaviour, including punctuality and communication skills
  • Money management, including budgeting and opening and managing bank accounts
  • Time management
  • Practical problem-solving skills for independent living in the community

Experienced counsellors say it is important to address the topics of communication, assertiveness, and stress with clients who have been in conflict with the law. The following approaches and exercises are designed specifically for ex-offenders. If your client agrees, you may wish to explore these areas and use some of these ideas.

Raising self-esteem

Incarceration can have a major effect on self-esteem. Prison may promote behaviours such as dependency and withdrawal and inhibit healthy behaviours such as expression of feelings. To address self-esteem issues, you can encourage clients to:

  • Examine their sources of self-esteem from childhood, family, and school experiences.
  • Write a list of their accomplishments.
  • Write letters of appreciation to themselves that recognize their good qualities.
  • Write lists of positive affirmations that they can say aloud daily to raise self-esteem.
  • Keep journals where they can release feelings, solve problems, and understand relationships. They may write their journals or make audio recordings.
  • Express themselves creatively through drawing, sketching, designing collages, or recording audio and video.

Building communication skills

Review the skills involved with effective listening and speaking:

  • Teach clients how to use “I” messages.
  • Show them how to clarify and paraphrase.
  • Discuss and demonstrate non-verbal communication.
  • Encourage clients to practise new communication skills between counselling sessions.

Learning assertive behaviour

In working with ex-offenders, demonstrate healthy and appropriate examples of assertive behaviour, such as:

  • Standing up for yourself
  • Saying no without hurting others or putting them down
  • Telling others how you feel without hurting them or putting them down

To help clients understand and practise assertiveness:

  • Discuss what being assertive means to them.
  • Discuss the differences between assertive, aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive behaviour.
  • Ask clients to describe personal situations in which they were assertive, aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive. Help them to analyze the outcomes of each situation.
  • Ask clients to practise these situations between counselling visits.
  • When working with a group of clients, have them draft an “Assertiveness Bill of Rights.”

You can also role-play these situations:

  • Making and refusing requests
  • Dealing with put-downs and criticism
  • Giving and receiving compliments

Clients who need more in-depth help may benefit from assertiveness training programs.

Managing anger

In general, covering the following points about anger with clients will be helpful:

  • Anger is a normal and healthy emotion.
  • Anger often covers up another underlying but critical emotion such as fear, frustration, sadness, or guilt.
  • Anger can be constructive when it signals us to take some action against injustice, abuse, or annoyance.
  • Anger is a problem if it is too frequent, lasts too long, leads to aggression, or disturbs work or personal relationships.

Help clients consider ways to manage anger in job search and employment situations. Demonstrate techniques for self-control. Clients who need more in-depth help may benefit from referral to an anger management program.

Managing stress

Explain that dealing with stress involves 3 choices:

  1. Changing what causes the stress
  2. Changing responses to the stress
  3. Exploring ways to manage stress

To help client manage stress, you can:

  • Help them identify sources or causes of stress.
  • Help them recognize its negative and positive effects.
  • Help them assess the level of stress in their lives and recognize common responses.
  • Show them relaxation exercises and encourage them to practise.
  • Discuss how diet and exercise can reduce stress levels.
  • Draw up a stress reduction contract with clients. The contract could be general or specific. For example, the stress reduction contract might address a specific job search event, such as going for an interview.

Clients who need more in-depth help may benefit from a stress management program.

Making decisions

Help clients see that decision making is something they do every day. Making good decisions will improve their lives. To build decision-making skills:

  • Review with clients how they make decisions now.
  • Note that effective decision making is a skill that can be learned.
  • Show how many different approaches can be used. Encourage them to consider priorities, values, and consequences to self and others.
  • Provide suggestions and opportunities to practise decision making during the counselling process and in the course of normal activities.

Dealing with substance abuse

Being patient—“Dealing with addictions is a huge challenge. Change takes time, and I like to encourage my clients to be patient with themselves, to give themselves a break.”

For clients dealing with substance abuse, a first step in moving forward is making a commitment to address their addictions. Drug treatment programs can help ease the transition from prison to the community.

Experts in the field offer the following information:

  • Participation in a substance abuse treatment program may be a condition of release.
  • Treatment programs may require full-time attendance. That precludes work search or maintaining full-time employment.
  • For counsellors, it is helpful to know about substance abuse issues, the effects of specific substances, and related community resources.
  • For clients not required to attend substance abuse treatment programs, you can provide referrals, information, and support. However, committing to treatment programs must be the client’s choice.

Strategies for career planning

You may want to help clients in 2 stages. First consider how to meet their core needs. Then target more specific career planning.

When exploring career options—“I question what is behind the [client’s] choice. What is it that they like about that area? I don’t want to dash their dreams. I want to help them explore options to get into that [preferred] area.”

Beginning a career-building plan

These needs can guide the first steps in the career-planning process:

  • Financial needs. Clients may have few financial resources. Help clients apply for income support and other community services where appropriate.
  • Temporary employment. You might refer clients to temporary employment agencies if there are no barriers to temporary employment, such as conditions of release.
  • Housing. Securing appropriate housing can be very challenging for ex-offenders, particularly if recently released. They may have limited financial resources, which compounds the problem. You might refer them to assistance programs or low-income housing.
  • Training programs. Some clients may need life skills training and work-related skill building before finding a job. Financial support or sponsorship in a training program will give them the time to gain skills to enter or re-enter the workforce.
  • Support. It is also important to help clients establish new relationships in the community. Taking part in a training program, even short term, is a good way to start building new relationships.
  • Networking. Brainstorm other ways to meet new people. Special interest clubs may be another option.
  • Communication with case management or parole officers. Establish contact with clients’ case management or parole officers. Case management officers may help reintegrate the person into the community and co-ordinate a training plan. Federal offenders should be able to identify their case management officer or parole officer.

Continuing the career-building process

Once these core needs have been discussed or addressed with the client, be ready to move forward. Work together on the next steps in the career-building process:

  • Preferred future. Help clients identify their preferred futures and options related to those preferred futures.
  • Criminal record checks. Help clients become aware of how a criminal record may affect their career path. Some education, training, and work options require criminal record checks. For example, criminal background checks are required for some public sector jobs, health-related programs, and work with children and other vulnerable people. These options may not be available to some clients.
  • Conditions of release. Make sure that all career and work search planning meets the clients’ conditions of release.
  • Collaboration. Continue to collaborate with the parole officer and other agencies and programs.
  • Skill-building programs. Help clients access skill-building programs and funding for such programs.
  • Pardons. You may want to refer clients to non-profit organizations that help with removing a past criminal offence from the public record.
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