Ban the box

by Dee Williams October 26, 2015

For too many in Asheville, a single box on a job application bars them from a shot at a future. But there’s a better way, and a growing local movement to change that

Above: A logo for the national Fair Chance — Ban the Box campaign.

Three years ago, canvassing door-to-door in the predominantly African American neighborhoods of Asheville and Brevard as a consultant for GroWNC, I noticed that over 50 percent of the people we contacted cited poverty, joblessness, and the lack of opportunity as barriers to participation by African-Americans in the future of the region.

According to those respondents, the underlying impediments of either being a felon themselves or having a relative who was one was cited as the cause for the lack of economic opportunity. This was the prevailing issue in both areas. The most often cited collateral consequence which condemned them included poor job prospects –and, specifically, at initial application, a box which they had to check, indicating if the applicant had ever been convicted of a felony. Statistics show that over 50 percent of any applications with the box checked affirmatively are tossed out and not reviewed.

In early 2002 my interest in mass incarceration, the Ban the Box movement and the collateral consequences of felony convictions and serving prison time was stoked first-hand. I was the subject of a criminal grand jury probe and investigation, and an ensuing civil action, both of which lasted for years.

The collateral consequences of even the allegation of criminality have been devastating to my employment opportunities and the quality of my life, despite having three college degrees and a Real Estate license. I vowed that if I ever came through this witch hunt, I would forever help other people whose live had been damaged/altered by the criminal justice system.

I do not pretend that I have as much “skin in the game” as someone who has actually been convicted of a felony and/or served time in prison, but this was as close as I need to be to be convinced that there are real collateral consequences which affect the quality of one’s life in any encounter with the criminal justice system, especially African-Americans.

My business attorney at the time told me that, “even if you are innocent, if this thing comes to trial, you will lose everything you have worked for trying to defend yourself.”

The inquiry lasted for months, with no indictment against me, and then civil litigation was undertaken against me after that, because the burden of proof was thought to be less. After three years of litigation, forensic audits, and with no less than twelve law firms involved, the witch hunt to nowhere ended, but with many collateral consequences.

I could not find work and when I did, it was low wage and temporary. I decided to become my own employer and to this day, this “scarlet letter” follows me around locally.

As the owner of a highway/roadway construction company, and as a contractor of the N.C. Department of Transportation, many prison inmates worked alongside my crews in several counties. Many of these inmates were serving sentences for non-violent crimes that were drug-related, or related to drug and alcohol abuse. We worked all over North and South Carolina so I had the opportunity to hear first-hand from inmates in both states, to learn how they went to jail, and the effects which incarceration had on their families while they were there. I began to hire, train and mentor workers who had been in prison throughout my construction career.

With degrees and experience in political economics, business and accounting, respectively, I have also worked as a contractor who provides technical assistance to community-based organizations which provide economic/development services to the poor and the working poor throughout Western North Carolina. After chartering a local nonprofit, comprised of mostly poor African-Americans from Asheville, a door-to-door canvass was conducted in low-income communities throughout the city. Many doors were knocked in low-income areas and public housing, and over 80 percent of the adult male residents cited the need for a job, but the difficulty in getting one because of a felony conviction. Many of them were living with others, off the lease, because they had no jobs and nowhere else to go.

These efforts then attracted like-minded folks who had been in prison, or had children who had been in prison. Through these efforts a non-profit, United Community Development of North Carolina, was chartered ten months ago in the Southside community.

There have been tangential attempts at intervention, job training, deterrence, and other strategies which have targeted to the African-American community in Asheville — many unsuccessfully according to statistics. Few, if any, can demonstrate impacts which have lessened poverty on a large scale. Many poor people in these isolated communities of need turn to illegal drug selling to make money. Mass incarceration has become a “new normal” and prison/jail has become a familiar place in these communities, as many old acquaintances from these impoverished areas are there already.

Structured sentencing and the War on Drugs has quintupled the prison population, and the collateral consequences are an enormous income gap and wage inequality gap in already economically devastated communities in Asheville, the state and the nation.

The issue of race, class and poverty cannot be excluded in a discussion about mass incarceration and the collateral consequences which result. The consequences are reduced life chances which are typified by low wage jobs, chronic unemployment, and ultimately, a return back to prison that feeds the for-profit prison industrial complex.

While working with the 2010 U.S. Census throughout WNC, I learned that the census does not count people in prison as part of their home county, but as residents of “where they lay their heads.” People in jail are not counted in the local census, or in local unemployment statistics. According to the U.S. Justice Department, such a count would likely increase the jobless rate by two percent or more in the United States.

There are over 1.6 million people in N.C. with a criminal record. The prison population has risen to about 40,000. Of this number, 98 percent will eventually be released. Fifty percent of ex-offenders are sent back to prison for new crimes.

Over 45 percent of those under Department of Correction supervision are African-American. Add to this the thousands more who have criminal records but are not under the supervision of the Department of Correction. These statistics demonstrate the tremendous number of people who face employment barriers as they seek honest, legal employment. Many of these persons have children and families who will suffer because these parents cannot contribute to their support.

Because of these problems, this Spring United Community Development called a press conference announcing the formation of a local Ban the Box initiative in Asheville and WNC.

During this press conference, we invited several representatives of one of the largest employers in Western North Carolina to the same meeting. These representatives were summoned to the meeting to not only watch the press conference and to hear personal testimonies of how this “box” was a barrier to people who had been convicted of felonies, they were also asked to advise members of the mostly poor and black community in Census Tract IX (Southside-Livingston) about what training/job opportunities were available to the residents because of a construction project which was to be built contiguous to this impoverished neighborhood.

The strategy was to begin a conversation about developing a Community Benefits Agreement for jobs and contracting opportunities. This initiative to remove the box on the employer’s job applications was “low-hanging fruit’ which could be achieved immediately, and our group would provide technical assistance and support as they made this transition. This led to our work with this major employer in removing the “box” from its application forms.

The Buncombe County R-Entry Council saw our press release and they suggested that we combine efforts and eventually lead the initiative. In August, this large employer removed the “box” from their application forms. Further, the same large employer is now becoming an evangelist for these changes, because we are now helping them to formulate internal administrative and best practices to cascade training to down the line to enforce removal of the box make other changers to remove barriers to employment opportunity.

That’s just the beginning. The working committees of Ban the Box also have a draft ordinance which will be delivered to the City of Asheville and then, Buncombe County government. We have been working with Daryl Atkinson, a senior attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham. He is a former prisoner, having served 40 months in Alabama for a drug offense and completed undergraduate study and law school.

He will come to Asheville to conduct day-long workshops which will educate grassroots activists, community members, and elected and religious leaders about the need for this change. Atkinson’s efforts have already helped removed the “box” from applications in the city of Durham, Durham County, and the city of Charlotte.

Months of study have been given to whether an ordinance or a change of administrative procedures would be the preferred route in getting the box removed from local city and county applications for employment.

An ordinance committee has met every two weeks to study and to formulate the recommendations of an ordinance versus an administrative procedure. The ordinance was favored because administrative procedures were deemed as “arbitrary and capricious,” and an ordinance was deemed more binding. Several City Council candidates in 2015 have expressed support for removal of the box on City applications, as well as three current City Council members: Cecil Bothwell, Gordon Smith and Marc Hunt.

In dollar terms, imprisonment is certainly a “burden to society.” A comprehensive study of 40 states by the Vera Institute of Justice last year found that taxpayers are dishing out $39 billion annually for the prisons in those states. The number of taxpayer dollars spent on a single inmate a year can go as high as $60,076. But research has found that dedicating money to rehabilitation programs instead of incarceration is much more cost effective, saving taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent.

There must be a cultural shift about people who have criminal convictions. The language and the images put forth must change. The language and culture must humanize the condition of being in jail as a moment in time, rather than a single action which defines the individual. In Asheville, we have begun a movement to educate employers, policy makers, and folks who have been in jail. Ban the Box – Asheville /WNC seeks to amplify the voices of the people who are closest to the problem. We are training them to tell their own stories and how to communicate them so that the struggle can be humanized. The goal is to let people who have been in prison and/or convicted of felonies to have the primary leadership of this movement.

Ban the Box has become a movement in Asheville. This movement has inspired ordinary people to want to work for opportunity, economic inclusion, self-determination, and justice. Locally, we will use social media to build the Movement and to coalesce with other like-minded groups in Asheville and across the state who also working for justice. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “No one is free until we are all free.”

Dee Williams is an Asheville business owner, advocate and one of the leaders of the local Ban the Box movement.

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