A grassroots solution to a national epidemic


Like many individuals, I grew up without a father.  My father was incarcerated for most of my life. In fact, the first time I met my father was in a Federal Correctional Institution. I also watched him get out of prison and go back to prison a few years after his release.

Like my father, men and women are being released into a society that is not conducive for them to become productive citizens, and as a result return to jail/prison.

Once someone is marked a ‘Felon’, they are legally barred from employment, housing, public benefits, education, participating in the political process, etc. What do we expect folks with criminal convictions to do upon their release?

‘Retribution supersedes rehabilitation’
We are living in the era of mass incarceration which retribution supersedes rehabilitation. Thousands of Black, brown, and White bodies are stuffed in American prisons each year. With 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, America is the most incarcerated country in the world. As Sen. James Webb, D-VA said “Either we’re the most evil people on earth, or we’re doing something wrong.” Mass incarceration is becoming overwhelming popular in the United States. People from local advocates to 2016 presidential candidates are urging folks to “end mass incarceration.”

But what does the eradication of a system that is ingrained in the very fabric of our country look like?

The solution involves a fusion of several issues. For this account, I will focus exclusively on the employment barriers for people with criminal convictions. Employment is a key component to a successful reentry, as the lack of employment often results in reoffending.

Ban the box
Individuals with criminal records often have a hard time gaining employment due to a box on an application that inquires of their criminal record. Studies have shown that once someone has checked that “box” on employment applications, the chances of getting an interview decreases. Since June, I have been working with a group consisting of students, community advocates, and formally incarcerated leaders in our “Ban the Box” campaign that is urging the City of Daytona Beach to eliminate that “box” on its initial employment applications and to postpone it to later in the hiring process.

The ordinance, which has been adopted in 15 states and over 100 cities, does not guarantee employment for individuals with records, but it “levels the playing field.”  We have received support from several elected officials, and we are still waiting for a first and second hearing.

Not second-class
Many of the responses to our nation’s broken incarceration/reentry policies, often times involve progressive policy. This movement isn’t just about advocating for new policy. At the root of the issue lie our beliefs and perceptions. If we continue to think of formally incarcerated individuals as second-class citizens, then our efforts to change policy are futile. The life of building barriers to employment for individuals with criminal convictions has long since gotten old. The time for our city to think differently and Ban the Box is now.

Mykal Tairu is the state program coordinator for the Vincentian Re-Entry Organizing project, a partnership between the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the National Society of St Vincent de Paul.


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