News Race

Obama Calls on Congress to ‘Ban the Box’ on Criminal Records

Kanya D’Almeida

President Obama's directive to delay inquiries into criminal records could move the government closer to outlawing disclosure of past felonies as a prerequisite for employment.

Criminal justice advocates scored a big win Monday with President Obama’s announcement of new measures aimed at easing reintegration of returning citizens—individuals released from state and federal prisonswho number more than 600,000 annually.

As part of a broader plan to tackle mass incarceration, Obama ordered federal agencies to delay inquiries into criminal backgrounds in a bid to prevent employment discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.

His directive is expected to move the government closer to “banning the box”: ending the hiring practice that requires prospective employees to disclose past felonies on job applications.

The president also called on Congress to take a lead from those states, cities, and private companies that have already chosen to ban the box, by considering bipartisan legislation that would outlaw the practice for federal hiring, including hiring by federal contractors.

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Nineteen states from every region of the country have implemented these “fair chance” laws, according to a database compiled by the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

More than 100 cities have similar laws on the books. New York City’s Fair Chance Act, which was passed by its city council in June, kicked in on October 27, effectively opening new doors for the estimated 2.5 million residents there who have criminal records.

Alyssa Aguilera, political director at VOCAL-NY, told Rewire the Fair Chance Act is “the most progressive fair chance hiring policy in the country”—partly because it goes beyond federal jobs and contractors and applies to private sector workplaces with four or more employees, and also because it “bans the box” not only from job applications, but even in interviews until a tentative hire offer has been made.

Shortly after Obama’s speech Monday, in which he also announced educational grants totaling $8 million to be distributed over three years to returning citizens, Twitter lit up in support for #BanTheBox, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeting: “A criminal record shouldn’t mean a life sentence of poverty.”

For millions of returning citizens, however, this has long been the case.

An April 2015 fact sheet produced by the NELP revealed that men with a criminal record comprise 34 percent of unemployed men between 25 and 54 years of age, while a former inmate at the peak of their working life could expect to earn $192,000 less than a person who had never been incarcerated.

Banning the box is expected to give returning citizens a fair break, but some feel it falls short of larger goals within the movement to reform the criminal justice system.

“We applaud all the steps Obama is taking to try to ease re-entry of people back into society,” Mujahid Farid, director of the NYC-based organization Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), told Rewire. “But we don’t think what he is doing is going far enough.”

Farid, who himself was incarcerated for 33 years, said the president’s heavy focus on so-called nonviolent offenders is too narrow to effectively tackle the issue of mass incarceration, adding, “nothing is going to be solved until we get to the root of the problem, which is the punishment paradigm in this country.”

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

What ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Missed About the Obstacles Faced After Prison

Victoria Law

Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside.

“You’re getting out early.” Those words are music to the ears of anyone behind bars. But on Orange Is the New Black, the women at Litchfield Penitentiary tend to see release as a bogeyman rather than welcome news.

In Season four of the Netflix series, Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) learns that she’s eligible for early release. At first, this is hopeful news: Being out of prison means that she can start the process of getting her children and newly born granddaughter out of foster care. But then reality sets in: She’s leaving prison without an education or skills that will help her find a job. Even worse, she now has a criminal record. “Sure, people love to hire ex-cons,” she snaps.

This is not the first time that the show has treated release and reentry as something to be feared rather than welcomed. In the first season, Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) is released on parole. Once out, she’s faced with the realities of no housing, no support system, and no job opportunities. Though the show never specifies what she did, Taystee is sent back to prison, where she tells Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) that she deliberately violated her parole so that she could return to Litchfield.

Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside. And in doing so, the show suggests that the very real systemic obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face upon release, especially where employment is concerned, are impossible to overcome—rather than drawing attention to the importance of dismantling those barriers, and the organizing being done around the country to do so.

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Over 650,000 people leave state and federal prisons each year. For many, finding stable employment is one of the first steps to surviving (and hopefully thriving) outside of prison. It’s frequently a prerequisite to finding their own housing and reuniting their families. For those on probation or parole, being gainfully employed is also a condition of staying out of prison. But finding a job isn’t easy, especially with a gap in employment history and a prison record.

Advocates, however, including formerly incarcerated people, have been working to eliminate one of the most obvious barriers: the question about past felony convictions on an initial job application, popularly known as the “Box.” In many cities, they are succeeding. More than 100 cities have passed “Ban the Box” legislation, which ends that practice of asking about previous convictions on initial applications. In 2015, the federal government also jumped on the Ban the Box wagon with Obama ordering federal agencies to delay inquiries into past felonies during the hiring process.

Ban the Box doesn’t mean that the question of criminal records never comes up. What it does is give job seekers a chance to be considered on their merits and not on their previous actions. If an applicant seems qualified for the job, they will go through the rest of the hiring process like every other applicant does. The question of past convictions may come up at some point during that process, but by then, the person has demonstrated their skills and qualifications for the job before having to explain past mistakes (as well as steps they’ve taken to ensure that they won’t land in a similar situation again).

Ban the Box has been shown to increase employment among formerly incarcerated job seekers. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, between 2004 and 2006, for example, the city hired less than 6 percent of applicants with convictions. Once it passed its version of Ban the Box, however, that percentage jumped to nearly 58 percent. Similarly, in Durham, North Carolina, the number of people hired for municipal jobs increased nearly sevenfold after it passed similar protections in 2011.

However, Ban the Box isn’t enough to ensure that formerly incarcerated job seekers are given a chance. Legislation needs to go hand-in-hand with a cultural shift toward people coming home from prison. Maria C., who returned to New York City in 2011 after a two-year incarceration for drugs, knows this firsthand. In 2015, New York City banned the box. But even before it did so, city law prohibited employers from making decisions based on convictions unrelated to the job being sought.

On paper, that should have meant that Maria should not have encountered discrimination from prospective employers. As Maria explained to Rewire in an interview, in reality, she still struggled to find work, although it is difficult to say how much her prior conviction and imprisonment weighed in prospective employers’ decision-making processes.

She applied for a job at a national wholesale chain. “Their website said they were ex-con friendly,” she recounted. Maria was called in for an interview, tested negative for drugs, and was told that the company would conduct a background check. After the background check, however, she was told that she did not get the job. She applied to other stores and supermarkets; from those, she received no response at all.

Finally, through an employment program of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit which helps people with reintegration after their release from prison, she found a job at a laundromat.

One afternoon, two months into her new job, she told her boss that she had to leave work early to see her parole officer. “After that, they started getting picky with me,” she told Rewire. Shortly after, she was let go.

The Fortune Society helped her find a second job at a warehouse. But a few months after she was hired, she said that the boss told her, “We’ll call you when we need you.” She never received a call.

At both jobs, Maria says she was asked about her record. She explained the circumstances of her arrest and incarceration as well as what she had accomplished since that time. That’s why she’s puzzled as to why she was let go after a few months. Maria spent five years in New York City; with the exception of the handful of months at the laundromat and warehouse, she remained unemployed.

Maria now lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a city that takes up 4.2 square miles and has a population of about 25,000 people. Lebanon and the surrounding county have a median household income of $56,000 and fewer than 3,000 employers. However, Lebanon also has a work release program, through which people in the local jail system are allowed to work in the community during the day before returning to the jail for the night. The presence of the work release program—especially in a comparatively small community—means that employers are almost certainly more accustomed to job seekers and employees who have criminal records. Within a week of arriving, Maria found work through a temp agency at a food factory where she packs croutons, chocolate, and mashed potatoes.

New York state also has a work release program; in 2010, nearly 2,000 people participated. Even so, the same willingness to hire formerly incarcerated people hasn’t seemed to manifest on a wide scale. Maria knows that the only way formerly incarcerated people like her will find jobs is if there’s a shift in culture and perceptions. Employers “should give people a chance to be able to succeed,” she said. “But employers don’t want to give them a chance.”

As Maria’s experience shows, part of this shift involves policies that create incentives to hire formerly incarcerated people. Some of these policies, like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, already exist. New York City itself has promoted the Fair Chance Act, its version of Ban the Box, even placing ads on the subway informing formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and their potential employers of this new protection. Local and federal agencies should take similar measures to promote existing opportunities.

Or, for example, consider the model of the Johns Hopkins Health System (JHHS) in Baltimore, Maryland, the state’s largest employer of formerly incarcerated people. In 2014 alone, the hospital hired more than 120 people with past prison records and, between 2009 to 2012, 430 formerly incarcerated people overall. “With 9,000 incarcerated people returning to Baltimore each year, the JHHS wanted to contribute to community re-integration efforts by providing employment opportunities,” Yariela Kerr-Donovan, the director of Johns Hopkins’ Department of Human Resources, stated in an interview with the nonprofit Senate Presidents’ Forum. To do so, they sought a Department of Justice training grant and partnered with community colleges and a training firm specifically to train people for positions inside the health system. This is a model that other large businesses can—and should—emulate.

The real-life job market is already stacked against women of color. As late as 2013, women of all races and ethnicities earned only 78 percent of what men earned. For many women of color, the wage gap widens—Black women were paid 64 percent of their white male counterparts. For Latinas, that wage gap widened to 54 percent and for Native Americans to 59 percent. (Surprisingly, Asian-American women showed the smallest wage gap, earning 90 percent of their white male counterparts. I’d like to know which Asian-American women’s incomes were surveyed and how many were members of underpaid and largely invisible workforces, such as domestic service or beauty industries, across the country.)

Now add in the disproportionate conviction and incarceration of women of color, which often exacerbates a lack of marketable skills, and you can see why efforts like Ban the Box are a necessary first step. Without a shift, however, in the ways that formerly incarcerated people are viewed—as potential workers, neighbors, and members of society—Ban the Box won’t be enough.

One show won’t make the sweeping changes necessary to overcome decades of institutional discrimination. But it can change individual hearts, minds, and hiring practices. Through Aleida’s release, Orange Is the New Black now has a storyline that could address some of the obstacles women face upon release, including employment discrimination and wage inequality. It remains to be seen whether the next season will make good on that opportunity.

Commentary Abortion

Language Matters: Why I Don’t Fear Being Called ‘Pro-Abortion’

Maureen Shaw

Words can and do hurt, especially when they cast people who seek or provide abortion care as immoral or murderers. But pro-choice activists can embrace unapologetic language that represents hope, self-determination, and bodily autonomy.

Recently, an anti-choice website profiled me, repeatedly describing me as “pro-abortion.” I understood immediately that this was meant to be an insult and a negative character judgment. But instead of taking offense or feeling bullied, I smiled—even as the vitriol poured into my Twitter mentions.

I haven’t always been able to smile at anti-choice trolls. They attack your ideology, personality, and even your family. It’s threatening and can feel very unsafe, and with good reason; just ask any clinic escort, pro-choice journalist, or abortion provider who has been targeted by anti-choice zealots or organizations. Online harassment and bullying is deliberate and meant to incite fear; it’s also a stepping stone to physical violence and intimidation.

The first time I was on the receiving end of such hatred, it made me sick to my stomach and I was tempted to abandon social media altogether. But removing my pro-choice voice from the conversation felt like handing trolls a victory. So with a few tweaks to my public profiles (like erasing my location and no longer posting photos of my children), I’ve decidedly moved beyond that fear and refuse to shrink in the face of online harassment (Twitter’s mute function certainly helps too).

These experiences taught me two very important lessons: first, about cowardice (it’s so easy to spew hatred from the anonymity of the internet) and second, about the importance of language. Most of us here in the United States have heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While this is certainly true in the most literal of interpretations, we know words can hurt when they come in the form of threats against abortion providers or calling women who have abortions “murderers.”

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Indeed, the way we talk about abortion is critical, from how we describe our adversaries to legislative bill titles and abortion procedures themselves. When anti-choice lawmakers and activists wield language that is inflammatory, misleading, or demonizing, the public’s perceptions of abortion are compromised. The ensuing negativity, in turn, helps transform commonplace medical procedures into “morally repugnant offenses”—to use the language of ethics, which the anti-choice movement so often co-opts—that abortion opponents want to heavily restrict (at best) or outlaw (at worst).

The so-called pro-life constituency understands this all too well and has done a brilliant job of manipulating language to guide the national discourse on abortion. Even the “pro-life” moniker is a calculated—not to mention hypocritical—move. After all, if a person is not “pro-life,” they’re implicitly anti-family and anti-child. This automatically puts pro-choice activists and allies in a needlessly defensive position and posits anti-choice ideology as favorable.

This perceived favorability runs deep and has very real implications for pregnant people. For example, politicians and activists alike jumped at the chance to essentially redefine dilation and extraction (a surgical procedure used in later abortions) as “partial birth abortion” (and sometimes, “dismemberment abortion”). It’s an obvious misnomer and a dangerous conflation, as one cannot be born and aborted; that would be murder, not abortion. As a result, the procedure was banned without a health exception, courtesy of the 2003 federal Partial Birth Abortion Act. And there’s no ignoring the current onslaught of anti-choice legislation with catchy names like the “Women’s Public Health and Safety Act,” the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” and the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

Let’s be honest: These bills are not about protecting women’s health or safety. Their sole purpose is to demean women by prioritizing unviable fetuses over women’s very real health-care needs. And they’re successful in part due to their phrasing: The words “child,” “survivor,” and “protection” all evoke positive imagery, while simultaneously (and not so subtly) vilifying the person who no longer wishes to be pregnant.

To be fair, anti-choicers aren’t the only ones with a working knowledge of the power of language. The pro-choice community has made serious efforts in recent years to reclaim the word “abortion” and paint it as a positive (or at the very least, common) experience. Just look at 1 in 3 Campaign’s Abortion Speakout, the #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign, and websites that curate positive abortion stories, and you’ll see a plethora of women embracing this shared reality. And it’s not just grassroots activists who have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet: Developers recently created a Google extension to change all “pro-life” mentions to “anti-choice.” Take that, anti-choice interwebs!

There have been efforts to move away from the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” altogether, because those simple labels don’t reflect a truly intersectional approach that goes beyond the traditional narrative around reproductive rights. I continue to identify as pro-choice because the term works for me. I believe it accurately expresses my support of the full spectrum of choice—parenting, pregnancy, adoption, and abortion—though I also understand and support activists’ rejection of the label.

As a pro-choice activist, I am heartened by these efforts and the ground gained. For so long, we’ve been on the defensive, from fighting stereotypes that pro-choicers can’t be parents to furiously trying to keep clinics open nationwide (and it doesn’t help that the mainstream media often fails to responsibly or fairly report on abortion). It’s been like trying to climb a steep hill covered in oil slicks.

But no longer. Thanks to the campaigns I’ve mentioned and others like them, pro-choicers everywhere—myself included—can more easily reclaim the power of language to shatter stigma surrounding abortion.

While I don’t pretend to have a new dictionary for those of us who work to support abortion rights, there are simple ways to leverage the words already in our lexicon to achieve success on this front. For starters, we can refuse to use the term “pro-life” in exchange for a more accurate description of the movement fighting to end access to a basic health service: “anti-choice.” We can also explicitly describe abortion as mainstream health care more consistently; doing so helps dispel the myth that abortion is rare, immoral, and a marginalized component of women’s health. And finally, we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace being called “pro-abortion.”

Why? Because “abortion” is by no means a dirty word—or thing, for that matter. I will happily embrace being called “pro-abortion.” Admittedly, the term is problematic when it’s used to suggest that all pregnancies should end in abortion or used to simplify reproductive justice and human rights issues. For me, pro-abortion means hope, self-determination, and bodily autonomy. And I’m most definitely in favor of all of those things.

I’d like to think the tables will turn in the very near future: that our courts nationwide will follow the Supreme Court’s lead and affirm the right to abortion without political interference, and that people will no longer be shamed for seeking abortion care. Until then, it’s paramount that each and every individual of the pro-choice community continues to demand progress. And what better way than with powerfully pro-choice and pro-abortion words? They’re the building blocks of our movement, after all.