Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Not only do most people leaving prison lack a competitive resume and emerge underskilled relative to the general population, they also shoulder a debilitating stigma because of their criminal history that prevents needed employment. The Prison Policy Initiative estimated in 2018 that as many as 27% of formerly incarcerated people were unemployed.
On Sept. 1, the Collateral Consequences Resource Center released a comprehensive report analyzing how all 50 states and the District of Columbia are responding to the ways that criminal records are held against their bearers.
According to the report, some states like New York, Nebraska and Oklahoma are enacting broad policies. Others, like Florida, Idaho and Maine, are doing next to nothing to mitigate collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. Many are somewhere in between. The upshot is that, when someone’s felony record complicates their efforts to take the next step in their lives, few remedies await.
It’s why formerly incarcerated people need a labor union of their own.
Returning citizens face significant challenges not only finding work but keeping it. Nine in 10 companies in the United States conduct criminal background checks, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, and can use them to deny prospective employees a chance to work for them. Federal law does not explicitly protect applicants from discrimination based on their criminal records.
Sometimes people with criminal records are fired after they commence work and have performed their jobs without incident. It’s happened to Darnell Mardis, who did time on drug charges. He was hired by a nursing home and fired a week later when the background report arrived, he told RedLineProject.org.
Apple did the same to employees working on its new compound in Cupertino, California; the construction workers had been employed for months when they were terminated for criminal records that Apple discovered when the company finally completed background checks.
These are two mere examples of a widespread problem for returning citizens that’s hidden in the unemployment statistics for this population; they got a job and did it well until their past was verified.
Unfortunately, even though they’re already employees, many of them have no recourse unless so many of them are fired that it becomes an issue of racial discrimination, which is what happened at a BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina several years ago.
BMW ended up having to re-screen employees who had been working for them for years through a subcontractor. The re-screen ended up costing several hundred people their jobs and disproportionately culling African Americans. Only because so many of the people were Black did the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission get involved and file suit on their behalf. If there had been one or two, it wouldn’t have been actionable to terminate good employees based on information about them that could have been known from the start of their contract.
Even when they keep their jobs, returning citizens earn less than people without criminal records and, in those low-wage jobs, lack meaningful benefits. They often face harassment and bullying in the workplace because of their pasts. Even if there’s a union on site, it may not come to their aid if it pits members against each other.
A union could address these grievances for people who aren’t affected in large enough numbers - or in high enough racial concentration - to warrant government intervention.
Organizers formed the Formerly Incarcerated Union of Rhode Island last year. It’s not technically a labor union - it’s incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit rather than a 501(c)(5) labor union - but it does the same thing. According to Cherie Cruz, one of the union’s founders, the organization addresses the “increased barriers to housing, employment, education and health care” in Rhode Island by referring people who run into bias to partners like the ACLU of Rhode Island and the state’s Disability Law Center.
Traditionally, unions derive their power from the threat of work stoppage against an employer, but it doesn’t matter that members would be employed at different workplaces. The Century Foundation researched “members-only” unions - those that don’t represent an entire bargaining unit at a workplace - and found them to be effective in stopping unhelpful and/or abusive employment practices.
It makes sense. Working together always strengthens people, even if they’re not all in the same place. Replicating the Formerly Incarcerated Union of Rhode Island nationwide could provide recourse when discrimination pops up against people like me in the workplace and beyond.
But it wouldn’t just help us. A union of formerly incarcerated people would benefit its community because it can directly reduce recidivism.
A study by the Council on State Governments Justice Center found that there’s “something more than a job” that reduces recidivism. Specifically, the study authors found a “complicated relationship” between employment and recidivism and said, “Research does not support the proposition that simply placing an individual in a job is a silver bullet for reducing criminal behaviors.”
The union is that “something more.” It creates a new symbolism by turning the ineradicable stigma of a criminal conviction into a qualification for inclusion.
That’s a first - and a much needed one.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bozelko column: Former prisoners need a labor union
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.