To Help Ex-Felons Work, New Haven ‘Bans the Box’

Melinda Tuhus

After reading a story about inmates in U.S. prisons who work dismantling electronics full of toxic materials, I thought I’d write about prison labor.

But in my initial inquiries on the subject, I ran into Bill Dyson, a former Connecticut state legislator whose special concern was criminal justice reform.

I can’t tell you about labor in prison,” Dyson said, but I can talk about work for those out of prison.”

One of the biggest obstacles for the 650,000 inmates who leave prison every year is the ability to get a job. Most of us are aware of the box on a standard job application that asks, Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Answering yes” usually means not getting an interview, while answering no” untruthfully could come back to haunt an applicant.

Every week, 25 ex-felons are released from Connecticut prisons and come to New Haven, including some who’ve never lived here before. Once Mayor John DeStefano realized that a high percentage of crimes committed in the city were the work of ex-cons, he proposed some initiatives to help them find honorable work.

One initiative was Ban the Box,” an effort to remove that noxious question from job applications for both city employment and jobs with vendors who do business with the city. At a earlier this year, testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of banning the box.

I can’t even tell you how I feel just to even look at that box on an application,” said ex-offender Derike Anderson. It’s almost like all hope is lost, because I gotta answer that question … I feel if that question wasn’t there, I’d have half a chance, just to get myself in the door and into an interview, I think I can sell myself very well.”

The proposal passed the Board of Aldermen, and has already been implemented by municipal government. As for vendors, many of them have long-term contracts with the city, and they won’t get rid of the box until they sign new contracts.

Deborah Marcuse, who coordinates the city’s prison re-entry project (and whose salary is paid by Yale University through its legal fellows program), points out that banning the box doesn’t mean ignoring an applicant’s criminal history.

But for an employer to decline to hire someone based on a criminal conviction, it must be job-related,” she said. That question about criminal history now comes at the end of the interview.

Several cities have ditched the box, but only three (Boston, Battle Creek, Mich., and New Haven) have extended the ban to vendors, which greatly expands the job possibilities for those leaving prison.

Laura Moskowitz is a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, which runs the Second Chance Labor Project for convicted felons. In testimony (PDF link) before the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, she noted that a high percentage of ex-felons were incarcerated for non-violent offenses, and that another significant number never even served time in prison – yet their felony records haunt them.

We think this is a really important way to reduce discrimination and the chilling effect that these individuals experience when they apply for a job, and when they check that box, their application won’t be considered,” Moskowitz told me. So now they’re judged on their merits and their experience, not just their criminal history.”

Melinda Tuhus is an independent journalist with 25 years of experience in print and radio, including In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and public radio stations.
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