Cassandra Bensahih spent four months in jail because of her drug addition.
When she was released, things didn’t get better. She couldn’t find a job or an apartment, she started using drugs again, and her kids were taken to foster care. Realizing the turn for the worse her life had taken, Cassandra enrolled in a rehabilitation program. She stopped using drugs and started down a better path for her and her family.
But Cassandra’s determination could only do so much for her. A little check box stood in her way. “Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a crime?” all her job applications read. Checking that box meant losing any chance of an interview. Time after time, opportunities slipped away as employers didn’t give her résumé a first look.
Cassandra began volunteering for the Massachusetts-based group, Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), which she learned about through her rehab program. EPOCA, along with the Boston Worker’s Alliance and Neighbor to Neighbor, worked to help pass a state law in 2010 that kept employers from being able to ask about criminal records in or before initial interviews. The groups also helped pass a state law that seals all criminal records after 10 years, so ex-prisoners really can have the chance to leave their pasts behind and start anew after some time has passed.
Now Cassandra works as a community organizer for EPOCA. Her children live with her again, she has a good place to live, and she’s five-years sober. Her record will be sealed in 2018.
Another ex-prisoner, Christopher Williams, didn’t experience such success his first time out of jail.
Although Christopher prepared for reentry the best he could through in-prison job training programs and GED classes, when he got out, the check box made all his effort appear to be for-not. He applied for jobs and was told he would hear back in a few days; but weeks passed and he called the employers only to hear they’d given the jobs to others.
Christopher’s inability to provide for himself kept leading him back to jail.
“I’m paying for two things with one charge,” he says. “I go to jail and I serve my time, and then I come out and try to do the right thing and then I can’t get a job because no one will hire me.”
But everything changed for Christopher in 2010 when Massachusetts banned the check box from job applications. Although employers could still ask applicants if they had a criminal background later in the hiring process, the ability to apply and interview without the stigma of crime attached did wonders. Suddenly employers began calling back, giving Christopher the opportunity to interview for a job — a way to support himself and avoid a lifestyle that could lead him to re-incarceration.
An article on thinkprogress.org notes that the unemployment rate for ex-prisoners like Cassandra and Christopher is usually about 60-75 percent. One study found that job applicants with a criminal background were 50 percent less likely to be called back or offered a position than applicants without a criminal history. But in states and counties where the box has been banned, these statistics are different. In Minneapolis, after the state of Minnesota passed the ban-the-box ordinance in 2007, the number of ex-prisoners who were able to gain employment moved from six percent up to 60 percent.
Back in 2003, an ex-prisoner organizing group called All of Us Or None coined the term “ban the box” and began community forums in California, allowing ex-prisoners to testify about the challenges they were facing due to the criminal history questions on job applications, housing applications, insurance forms, and public benefits forms.
The movement began in San Francisco and started to spread. Similar movements occurred elsewhere. The New York Times wrote, “Taken together, the recent developments in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco symbolize a step forward in terms of fairness for law-abiding ex-offenders, who are often barred from entire occupations because of youthful mistakes and minor crimes committed in the distant past. It should be clear to all of us by now that confining those people to the ranks of the unemployed makes it more likely that they will commit new crimes, return to prison and become a permanent burden to society.”
Now, 10 states and 56 local jurisdictions have banned the box.
Linda Evans of All Of Us Or None says, “We’re really fighting a battle for the hearts and minds of the American public as well …”
All Of Us Or None isn’t only interested in removing a box from a form; they’re hoping the concept that people are capable of change if given a second chance spreads throughout American culture, too.
Prison Fellowship is working to share this second-chance ideology by extending God’s grace and the Good News of His forgiveness to those affected by crime and incarceration. If you would like to be involved in a Prison Fellowship reentry program, helping ex-prisoners succeed after release, please visit our reentry program page. And, to read more about the hurdles that ex-prisoners face upon reentry, please see Justice Fellowship’s webpage, “Collateral Consequences: Making Reentry Difficult.”