At age 18, Marilynn Winn went to prison in Georgia for theft. When she was released a year later, her first action was to look for a job.
She soon learned she could only get hired if she lied on job applications.
She became a file clerk for the Atlanta Housing Authority, but her success was short-lived – the agency found out she’d concealed her time in prison and fired her. It was the beginning of a long struggle to find work.
Today, a nationwide movement called “Ban the Box” seeks to address this problem. It’s an effort to get government and private employers to revamp job applications to remove the question "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"
Georgia’s most populous county is the latest local government looking at removing the check-box from job applications, and Winn can take credit. Now an organizer for the workplace advocacy group 9to5, she gained the agreement of Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves to support the measure. She was also instrumental in the city of Alanta's decision to ban the box from its job applications.
The goal of this movement is to remove a major barrier to employment for people who have been incarcerated. “It’s not to hide the background,” Winn says. “It’s to enhance the chance for a job interview.” Employers could still do background checks, but the applicant could get a foot in the door to explain their past.
Ten states and 54 local governments have made the change, and the issue has been raised in many more.
Legislation is on the table in both New Jersey and Delaware, said Michelle Rodriguez, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project in Oakland, Calif. Georgia could also see legislation proposed this year.
In Virginia, several cities and counties are considering the change. In San Francisco, an ordinance is being proposed to extend the policy to private employers. The city adopted the policy for most city agencies in 2006.
The issue is as important to juveniles as it is to adult inmates.
"They see how the criminal justice system will impact their lives," Rodriguez said.
While a juvenile record can be erased, states have different laws about what to expunge. In a digital age, information not meant to be released often shows up on the Internet anyway, Rodriguez said. Some juveniles are tried as adults with no chance to expunge their record.
Formerly incarcerated people are on the forefront of the effort to remove job barriers. The phrase “ban the box” was coined by a group of formerly incarcerated people and their families who started a movement in California in 2003. Their group, All of Us or None, seeks full restoration of civil and human rights for people after release from prison or jail.
Other organizations are active in various states. Winn helped launch the campaign for the Atlanta chapter of 9to5.
Winn’s first brush with the law came when she was a child. She was raised by her grandmother, who taught her how to steal, Winn said. In grocery stores, Winn would pester her grandmother for treats.
Winn said her grandmother would tell her, “Get it and eat it before you get to the counter.” Her shoplifting habit began there and grew.
“My grandmother had no idea” what she was starting, Winn said. At age 8, Winn was caught and held briefly in juvenile detention for shoplifting. The thefts and detentions continued. As the only light-skinned child in a dark-skinned family, Winn said she was looked on with suspicion by her relatives, who wondered about her parentage.
During her teen years, she was mostly on her own, as her mother worked two jobs and was not often present. She felt like she was the outcast of her family and of the neighborhood.
After her imprisonment at 18, she was hired and fired a number of times.
When her daughter was born, making a living was harder and Winn began to steal again. She went to prison six times. “I’d get out and look for a job.”
“I wanted so badly to have a career,” she said. She wanted to work in a more prestigious job than McDonald’s or Burger King, but said she had to change her way of thinking and accept whatever she could get.
When she was released in 2002, Winn was deeply committed to staying out of prison. “Whatever was keeping me from being free, I would address that,” she vowed.
She focused both on her own attitudes and external barriers to employment. She began volunteering at 9to5 and was eventually hired.
She works with other formerly incarcerated people on the Ban the Box campaign.
“We are people who have a passion for this,” she says.
The system is “really set up for us to come out and go back,” and her goal is to change that.