“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.