Millions of Americans who have been imprisoned will survive one box only to be confined by another, smaller yet even more damaging one. On July 14th, the President spoke at the NAACP Convention about criminal justice reform, and not only did he want to reduce the number of people in these prison boxes, but he also wanted to completely ban the smaller, yet socially and economically suffocating ones.
“Let’s follow the growing number of our states and cities and private companies who have decided to “‘Ban the Box’ on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview,” he said.
For the President, this is greater than a quest to accomplish reform which translates into approval ratings. The urgency of this movement has been brought to attention as an authentic crisis spearheaded by the actual survivors of prison, the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who completed sentences, only to return to their families denied of future prospects. Ban the Box was a campaign started in 2004 by formerly incarcerated people and their families who saw firsthand the hiring discrimination people out of prison faced when looking for jobs. They were shut out of work because employers focused on their criminal history instead of their skill set.
The campaign’s first large success was in 2009. In Minnesota, grassroots group the Second Chance Coalition successfully banned the box on employment forms asking if the person applying for the job has a criminal record. The Minnesota-based company Target not only removed the question from its applications in stores in the state, but expanded the policy to its stores nationwide. Since then, 18 states and 100 cities and counties have banned the box. And while the movement officially began over a decade ago, it has exploded in recent years. The box is disappearing in places other than employment too: Newark, N.J. recently removed the criminal record question from housing forms. This spring, the movement made it to Capitol Hill as 70 members of Congress urged the President to address this pressing issue. Then in July, at the NAACP Convention, President Obama officially declared his support.
“Some people heard President Obama say ‘Ban the Box’ and started crying because we had been working on this for so long,” said Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and co-founder of All Of Us Or None. “Ban the box would not have come out of [President Obama’s] mouth without the grassroots.”
Nunn was sentenced to life in the California Department of Corrections when he was 19 years old. When he was eventually paroled and then discharged, the only job he could get was working for the very jail that imprisoned him. For people like Dorsey, they leave the bars of prison only to be barred again, this time from jobs to support themselves and their loved ones. This trend perpetuates unemployment and continues the cycle of poverty for the formerly incarcerated and their families. For more than 30 years, Nunn has been a major figure in the fight for fair-chance hiring that provides millions of formerly incarcerated people such as himself a clean slate and path to jobs.
While the President shows clear interest in this movement, we must be relentless in pushing him further, so that the box is no longer a barrier to success for the formerly incarcerated.
“To have the President of the United States poised to issue an executive order around Federal hiring practices would do a lot in helping formerly incarcerated people get access to living wage jobs. Hats off to all of my colleagues across the country for waging this battle,” said Norris Henderson, Founder and Executive Director of VOTE, Voice of the Ex-Offender. Henderson was wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years, witnessing firsthand the inhumanities of today’s criminal justice system. Since his release, he has organized prison reform coalitions in New Orleans and Louisiana for more than a decade.
People such as Norris Henderson and Dorsey Nunn have laid the foundation of the Ban the Box movement. Their voices fuel the fight. Their firsthand experience with criminal justice fuels their unyielding passion to the cause. Together with the support of family members and loved ones, as well as allies and organizations that advocate the cause, Ban the Box has become a powerful force to bring criminal justice reform to the forefront of the national agenda.
“I am truly hopeful that there will be an executive order for Ban the Box. I’m definitely hopeful. Virginia did it on the state level. I’m hopeful that a Ban the Box ruling will be done on a federal level as well,” said Lillie Branch-Kennedy of RIHD, Inc. and a fellow at the Petra Leaders for Justice. Lillie’s son, Donald, was a college student when in the summer before his junior year, he was sentenced to 127 years and isolation 23 hours each day in a maximum security prison run by the “tough on crime” policy of the time. The experience of Lillie’s son shows how the criminal justice system disproportionately targets black men and young black men with punishments that last for life, far beyond prison time. She founded the Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged, RIHD, to help those with loved ones in prison to support each other and advocate for criminal justice reform.
Today, over 25 grassroots organizations are uniting in D.C. to keep attention on efforts to Ban the Box on a federal level and keep contractors who do business with the federal government from asking the discriminatory question on their job applications. They will gather in front of the White House to make their voices heard. We will urge the President to Ban the Box for all federal employees and contractors.
You can support the movement by following #banthebox starting at 11 a.m. today, and by taking the pledge to increase opportunity for formerly imprisoned people through advocating for fair hiring practices and eliminating barriers of discrimination at bantheboxcampaign.org. The work of formerly incarcerated people in building this movement over the past ten years has reached new heights and is poised for further success.
Together, we can completely eliminate the small box with huge and unjust power over people who deserve a fair chance to support themselves and the people they love.