Please note: Due to circumstances beyond our control both within San Quentin Prison and elsewhere, we have posted only the introduction to this paper as of November 10, 2023. We will post the balance of the paper as soon as possible. 

Previewed at the Mt Tamalpais College Research Workshop NCHEP Presentation on Friday, November 10, 2023

NCHEP - National Conference for Higher Education in Prisons

Work, Recidivism, and Meaning

Authored and presented by Kelton P. O’Connor, Senior Advisor to Earth Equity


Effective anti-recidivism methodologies are hard to come by, but must be identified if we are to simultaneously end mass incarceration and improve the safety of our communities. Many reentry programs attempt to reduce recidivism by connecting returning citizens to work opportunities1 however, most jobs in most industries that hire formerly incarcerated citizens have no statistically significant effect on recidivism.2 The deterrent effect of work on recidivism is driven by job quality.3 Observed determinants of job quality include wages, benefits, job stability, and occupational level.4,5 Modification of these determinants at the industry level is challenging. The identification of hitherto unobserved and more easily modified determinants of job quality would greatly improve efforts to reduce recidivism.

This paper formally presents, for empirical testing, the hypothesis that meaning is a feature of workplace experience so valued by workers that it impacts recidivism.

A job's ability to provoke experiences of meaning stands out as a potential determinant of job quality because meaningfulness has been shown to be more important to workers than all other features of work - including wages, promotions, and working conditions.6 If meaning is valued above all other aspects of work, including those aspects observed in the literature as determinants of a job's effect on recidivism, then it is reasonable to suspect that meaning also impacts recidivism.

Workplace meaning, as a determinant of job quality, is a topic worthy of scientific scrutiny because the multi-field literature review this paper presents has identified:

  • Evidence supports the meaning/recidivism hypothesis.

  • It appears the meaning/recidivism hypothesis has not yet been formally proposed or rigorously studied.

  • It appears that a job's approximate likelihood of provoking experiences of meaning can be predicted, in general, and in respect to particular individuals.

  • Meaning in the workplace can be increased in a number of ways, and substantially.

Empirical testing of this paper's hypothesis should be achieved by creating a Meaning Potential Quotient (MPQ). The MPQ is ideated here as an instrument that scores the likelihood a workplace will elicit experiences of meaning. The creation of an MPQ that is accurate enough to enable large scale tests of this paper's hypothesis is probably feasible because a range of objective workplace features are approximately predictive of worker experience.7 Existing research shows that workplace meaning can be measured on a number of distinct axes: service to others, unity with others, becoming self, expressing potential.8

 The possibility that rates of recidivism could be improved by boosting a feature of workplace experience that all people crave is tantalizing, not only because there appears to be a crisis of meaning in our society that is impacting all of us, but because readily available methods of increasing workplace meaning also hold out promise as solutions to many other crises.

Methods of boosting workplace meaning discussed here include:

  • Increased application of worker-owner business models. These business models increase opportunity for workers to experience the category of workplace meaning referred to as unity-with-others.

  • Increased availability of career paths related to environmental justice, earth stewardship, and other responses to planetary crisis. It is proposed here that such career paths will increase opportunity for workers to experience the category of meaning known as service-to-others.

  • Increased provision of environmental justice curriculum in higher education programs, especially in those that service populations that are disproportionally impacted by environmental injustice – for example incarcerated populations.

  • Increased provision of curriculum and hands-on training related to worker-owner models in higher education programs that service populations disproportionally hired into blue collar industries – for example, incarcerated populations.

  • Application of worker-owner business models in sectors that qualify as crisis response industries. For example creation of ocean stewardship cooperatives that support kelp restoration efforts through urchin ranching. 

This is not an exhaustive enumeration of methods that are available for the purpose of boosting meaning in the workplace. I have chosen to highlight methods of boosting workplace meaning that are related to labor interests, economic resilience, environmental justice, and planetary crisis response in order to drive home the need for research on this paper’s topic. These examples also represent paths to increasing meaning in the workplace which are worth pursuing in the course of testing this paper’s hypothesis, and regardless of the outcome of those tests. Even in the unlikely event that meaning is found not to be related to recidivism all of the methods of boosting meaning in the workplace described here will nevertheless benefit society profoundly.


1. Erin Jacobs Valentine and Cindy Redcross; Transitional jobs after release from prison: effects on employment and recidivism; IZA Journal of Labor Policy; 2015.

2. Kevin Schnepel;  Good Jobs and Recidivism; The Economic Journal, Economic Working Papers Series; 2018.

3. Anke Ramakers, et al; Not Just Any Job Will Do: A Study on Employment Characteristics and Recidivism Risks After Release; International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology; 2017.

4. Ibid 2 above

5. Ibid 3 above

6. Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden; What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless; MIT Sloan Management Review; 2016.

7. Ibid 6 above

8. Marjolein Lips-Wiersma and Sarah Wright; Measuring the Meaning of Meaningful Work: Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Meaningful Work Scale (CMWS); Group and Organization Management; 2012.