WASHINGTON, D.C. — Glenn Martin answered 50 different job postings in his first 30 days out from a six-year stint in prison. “Almost every single one turned me down right away, and the one or two that did offer me a job within hours rescinded that job offer,” he told a crowd gathered outside the White House Thursday morning.
But within seven years, Martin had risen to a Senior Vice-President job at the high-powered Fortune Society. He launched his own organization late last year and is on track to provide leadership training and individually tailored organizing training to 220 former corrections inmates by the end of this calendar year.
Despite his success, Martin still faces challenges since leaving prison. “When I got turned down 50 times for jobs, first of all your self-esteem goes down the drain,” he said. “This is a country where so much of your life is tied to your employment, your health care, your identity.”
Martin, now the founder and president of Just Leadership USA, was at the White House Thursday with a very simple message: “Ban the Box.”
If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ve probably seen the box. Hiring forms commonly require applicants to indicate if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. That little check-box produces some grand societal failures: An estimated 60 to 75 percent of Americans released from prison cannot find work throughout their first year back home.
The idea behind the slogan isn’t to forbid hiring managers from ever asking about an applicant’s past. It’s to ditch the up-front ask on an initial application form, the little box that makes it so easy to chuck people into the trash without actually weighing their qualifications and suitability for the job.
That box effectively bars the roughly 70 million Americans with an incarceration record from finding employment after serving their time, undermining rehabilitation and driving up recidivism. Given the racist disparities of the American criminal justice and prison systems, the economic effects of the box fall heaviest on black people – and not just the ones who did time.
“Those who have never been incarcerated but have loved ones, sons, uncles, cousins, nephews, partners who are incarcerated, their economic plight is severely worsened because of that box,” Vivian Nixon of College and Community Fellowship told the crowd, adding that application forms for college and public housing often also feature that same question.
“Let us in to all the opportunities that American citizens are entitled to,” Nixon, who finished a three-year sentence 15 years ago, said. “Because upon being convicted of a felony, I do not cease to be a citizen of the United States.”
A number of states have taken up “ban the box” measures. At least one major private company employer has voluntarily dropped the question from their application forms. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order in April prohibiting state agencies from putting the box on their applications. Now, the movement is aiming at the federal government.
Thursday’s rally was organized around a petition drive to ask President Obama to issue a similar executive order for all federal contracts. While Obama himself endorsed banning the box weeks ago, no plan to issue an executive order has yet been announced. A more ambitious effort to incorporate criminal justice into federal hiring fairness laws would require the cooperation of Congress – a body notoriously unresponsive to the interests of the poor and the poorly connected.
People like Martin and Nixon have been working for decades to lower the barriers to re-entry that Americans face when they leave prison. But progress toward a society and job market that actually acts as though exiting prison clears a person’s debt to society has been painstaking and fragile. Thursday’s speakers repeatedly invoked the importance of getting an executive order before Obama, the first sitting president to personally visit a federal prison, leaves office in 18 months.
“We know this president understands,” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Wade Henderson said Thursday. “Let him give us the kind of support that he knows, but for the grace of God, he would need himself.”
This community faces stark challenges in persuading America to “be the land of opportunity that we profess to be,” as Henderson put it.
Suspicion, liability, and a punitive national morality toward those who broke the law can be permanent marks for many, and the vast U.S. prison system is more punitive than rehabilitative in many cases.
Despite the progress he’s made as a human being, an organizer, and an executive, Martin also said he continues to face some of the same tacit societal racism that underlies incarceration-based employment discrimination in a country where one in three black men have a record.
“I was invited to the White House to talk about mass incarceration. And when I got to the door, 50 of my colleagues walked in,” Martin said. “I got stopped and told I needed to call upstairs and get somebody to come escort me.”
Even the words we use to discuss people like Nixon, Martin, Thompson, and Thursday’s other speakers emphasize their past crimes over their present potential. “Language matters,” Martin said, pointing out that the dozen or so rally speakers with experience behind bars had not labeled themselves “ex-offender,” “convict,” or “inmate.”
Moments later, a tall black woman named Daphne spoke, repeatedly describing herself as a felon. When she’d finished, a fellow speaker grab the microphone. “You said something we are not gonna let you leave here with today,” he said. “You ain’t a felon no more.”
The crowd erupted, and the minister who has presiding over the order of speakers convoked an impromptu group prayer, laying his hand on Daphne’s shoulders and asking God to let the world know: “She’s a human being. She’s not a ‘felon.’ She’s a human being.”