Ban the Box
Being released from prison is a huge transition for an inmate, their family, and friends. There are a lot of expectations and challenges.
After serving 4,000 days in prison, I was released in January of 2020. Since then, I have seen something that is troubling. And it appears to be intentionally making the path of redemption more difficult for returning citizens.
It may not seem like much. It’s a simple question on so many forms: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
This is “the box” — a checkbox on a form that I and every other felon have to mark. If we don’t mark it, we are committing another felony by failing to disclose an old one. “Ban the Box” is a big push to get this box off of employment forms. But that’s not the only place you’ll find this insidious little box. I’ve been seeing the box around in other places.
And it is pissing me off.
The box appears on all of the housing rental applications I and all my peers have to fill out. There are no anti-discrimination rules around felons and leasing and renting of real estate. It is legal for the property owner to screen their applicants on this basis but legal doesn’t mean it’s right or in society’s best interest. My own re-entry has been stressful and frustrating when over and over I meet qualifications on every part of a rental application…except for this.
The box is actually a de facto form of redlining. The Box places us felons out of low-crime neighborhoods and into areas with lower property values, that are over-policed, under cared-for, and with worse school systems.
All because of a box.
It’s more than a checkbox. It’s a box on a felon’s future. It boxes him or her into an environment that is likely to lead them to old behaviors. It boxes us into stereotypes and discrimination that can lead to recidivism. The box is a chain. The box needs to be banned.
Apart from the housing situation, I found the box hanging and clanging around somewhere else, too:
At my work.
I am a small business consultant at a boutique firm. Sometimes we have clients with plans, ambitions, or projects that exceed the scope of what we can do. Sometimes they simply need some exposure or more capital than we invest, and in cases where it’s both, I love to refer them over to Shark Tank.
Yup, that Shark Tank. It’s a show on ABC. It’s a great television show that I fell in love with in prison. It speaks to the American ideal that if you have an idea, concept, company, or product that has value and you work hard, good things can happen! Noah and I have watched over the years as budding small business owners get financing from the cast of billionaires like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Cuban is one of my favorites on the show because not only is he a billionaire, he speaks out about social justice and is involved in politics.
Recently, we ran into a project that fit the criteria: the product needed more exposure and money than we could provide. So I sent them over to Shark Tank.
The call came back immediately.
“Man, they won’t take me, Chris. Won’t even consider the pitch deck.”
“Because I am a felon.”
It hadn’t even crossed my mind that this guy was a felon. He was in his forties, professional, down to earth. But I know better than that: felons come in all kinds. We are society. We look like everyone and everyone looks like us.
And this man had just been “boxed” out of an opportunity.
I couldn’t believe it. So I checked the site myself. And there it was, clear as day. Felons need not apply.
Boxed out on job applications.
Boxed out on housing applications.
Boxed out from second chances at growing a dream business.
It’s time for this society to move past putting people in boxes.
It’s time for our leaders – and owners of basketball teams – to actually put in to practice what they post about on Instagram and Twitter.
It’s time to ban the box. From all of it.
Everybody should have the right to apply for housing they qualify for.
Everybody should have the right to work if they have the skills.
Everybody should have the right to dream.
Ban the box.