Investing in Formerly Incarcerated Leaders in the Movement to Transform the Criminal Justice System
By Ellen M. Barry and Aleah Bacquie Vaughn
On November 2, 2015, President Barak Obama took major action toward restoring the civil and human rights of formerly incarcerated people by announcing that he was “banning the box” with respect to federal hiring, prohibiting federal agencies from asking job seekers about their conviction histories on employment applications. The “Ban the Box” campaign makes it possible for people with past convictions to have a meaningful opportunity to be hired, thus enabling them to support themselves and their children. The President’s announcement happened as a result of over eleven years of organizing by formerly incarcerated people and their allies across the country.
All of Us or None (AOUON), a civil and human rights organization comprised of formerly incarcerated people, prisoners and their allies, created and launched the Ban the Box movement in 2004. The Criminal Justice Initiative was one of the first funders to support AOUON and the national campaign to Ban the Box, awarding AOUON a grant in 2006 to convene a series of “Peace and Justice Summits” throughout California to advance the campaign for the civil and human rights by and for people who are formerly incarcerated. AOUON is now a national movement, with chapters throughout California, Texas, Oregon, and North Carolina. Today, over 100 jurisdictions across the Unites States and 19 states have banned the box in various capacities.
The Criminal Justice Initiative’s decision to fund AOUON early on was the result CJI’s circle structure and the practice of members (donors and activists, some of whom have experienced incarceration) engaging in a political education process with each other. CJI’s 2006 Political Education meeting focused on the multitude of “perpetual punishments” formerly incarcerated people face even after they get out of prison and/or parole. Formerly incarcerated organizers and activists presented to the Circle on these punishments, which take the form of public housing bans, voter disenfranchisement, termination of parental rights, and lack of employment opportunities, even in organizations where their experience of incarceration makes them experts. In the discussion that followed the presentation, Circle members who had been incarcerated or detained spoke about their experiences and the barriers they face in the movement for transformation of the criminal justice system as formerly incarcerated people. In the course of the conversation, it was suggested that the focus for CJI’s funding that year should be specifically to fund positions for formerly incarcerated people in movement organizations to support them in organizing for their own liberation. At that meeting, CJI made a three-year commitment to that specific focus. The leadership of formerly incarcerated people and others directly impacted continues to be an important requisite for CJI funding.
At that time, very few funders would support formerly incarcerated people organizing on their own behalf, and some outright refused to fund those that dared declare themselves the leaders of their own civil rights movement. Now, over ten years later, we are experiencing on a national level the impact of their leadership, their organizing efforts and their expertise.
Since 2004, many local and national organizations have joined the campaign to Ban the Box. CJI has continued to support the growth of this movement by continuing to fund AOUON chapters, and other organizations led by formerly incarcerated people, including The Ordinary Peoples’ Society (TOPS), A New Way of Life, Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), Freedom Archives, and Community Success Initiative.
In September of 2014, eight formerly incarcerated leaders from a variety of organizations including three previous CJI grantees, met with representatives of the White House and discussed Ban the Box, among other topics. In October of 2014, the Federal Interagency Reentry Council (including 20 federal agencies) hosted a meeting with formerly incarcerated leaders and discussed discrimination in education, employment, housing, voting rights, and other arenas and proposed solutions, including Ban the Box. In January of 2015, AOUON, National Employment Law Project, and PICO National Network formally launched an initiative strongly urging President Obama to issue an Executive Order to Ban the Box in hiring for all federal contractors.
The President’s action in calling to Ban The Box in federal agencies is only one step in the struggle to expand and reclaim civil and human rights for prisoners and formerly incarcerated people. Formerly incarcerated leaders urge that the President go further and issue an executive order extending the ban to federal contractors—who provide jobs for an estimated twenty-five percent of the United States labor force. They also continue to work for greater systemic change that includes banning the box on employment applications throughout the private sector, as well as expanding formerly incarcerated peoples’ rights in housing, education, voting and family issues.
CJI continues to invest in organizations that cultivate and prioritize the leadership of those most affected whether they are or have been incarcerated, are at risk for detention and deportation, or are impacted by police violence. We believe this focus is responsible for the impact of our funding, which, in 2015, has flowered into a number of meaningful policy victories.
Prisoners represented in a settlement that ended long-term and indiscriminate solitary confinement in California this year, released a joint statement contextualizing the victory.
"We celebrate this victory while, at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle. We are fully committed to that effort, and invite you to join us."
We believe their words are just as relevant to the other victories that the organizing of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people have wrought this year, including the one to Ban the Box. At CJI, we are proud of the movement leadership we have supported and the difference they have made in the struggle for self-determination and liberation.
 These organizations included: AOUON, the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Families Movement, TOPS, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, CCF , A New Way of Life (ANWOL) and V.O.T.E. (Voice Of The E x-Offender)
 Ashker, Todd, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, Luis Esquivel, George Franco, Richard Johnson, Paul Redd, Gabriel Reyes, George Ruiz, and Danny Troxell. “Statement of plaintiffs on settlement of Ashker v. Governer of California.” August, 31, 2015. https://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/2015 /09/09/our-movement-rests-on-a-foundation-of-unity-our-agreement-to-end-hostilities-video-included/