No judge in the United States has ever sentenced anyone to a lifetime of unemployment. However, the collateral consequences of the American carceral system ensure that, although not codified into law, this is often the case. While the immediate effects of incarceration are profound enough — from severe mental health consequences to physical abuse to inadequate heating and food provision — people who are previously incarcerated encounter a disturbing set of barriers upon leaving prison. The process is often extremely difficult for people who return to unstable familial, housing or educational situations. All of these issues are compounded by the inability to access dependable sources of employment — at Brown and beyond.
An analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative found that formerly incarcerated people face an unemployment rate of over 27 percent, which is significantly greater than the national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent as of this September. Within the first two years of release, the number is an even more staggering 31 percent. For people who are formerly incarcerated, stable work is important for paying bills and providing for families and communities. Moreover, employment reduces the chances of recidivism — the tendency for rearrest, reconviction and/or reimprisonment. A study from the Manhattan Institute found that six prison-to-work programs in different cities reported recidivism rates between 3.3 percent and 8 percent when people were offered jobs immediately after their release, compared to the general rates across the corresponding states which ranged from 31 percent to 70 percent. Clearly, employment among people who have been incarcerated mitigates this cycle of release, impoverishment and return to prison.
More than 2.3 million people nationally are locked up in a correctional facility at any given time, with 4.5 million more on parole or probation, according to the PPI. Additionally, mass incarceration disproportionately affects predominantly low-income, Black and Latinx communities, as well as those who experience high levels of trauma or have a mental illness. The Initiative finds that in Rhode Island, Black people comprise 30 percent of the prison population despite making up a mere 6 percent of the general population; Latinx people make up 12 percent of the state population, yet 24 percent of the prison population. As such, the discriminatory barriers to employment faced by formerly incarcerated individuals inherently affect the economic and social outcomes of marginalized communities.
The disproportionate difficulty experienced by people with conviction histories in finding employment opportunities can be ameliorated through addressing one of the root causes of the disparity: intentional and implicit biases in hiring practices. These biases often manifest through background checks and screening processes which arbitrarily evaluate incarceration and arrest history. As such, it is of the utmost importance that institutions and employers recognize and amend these discriminatory practices, including and especially Brown University.
Brown’s current criminal background check and screening policy is vague, stating that in its review of criminal convictions the University will consider “1) The nature and seriousness of the offenses … 2) The number of such offenses; 3) Whether such convictions are related to the duties of the position; (and) 4) The accuracy of information provided by the finalist in the application process.” This policy lacks specificity, particularly regarding what constitutes job-relatedness and which jobs demand background checks. Additionally, the policy does not appear to entail a conviction review or appeals process. There are no official statistics on the number of formerly incarcerated individuals employed by the University, but the inadequacy of this policy is certainly limiting, if not completely preventing, the hiring of formerly incarcerated individuals for the over 300 entry-level jobs, including over 100 custodial and entry-level administrative positions, along with numerous other employment opportunities at Brown.
Brown is the fourth largest employer in Rhode Island and thus wields immense power through its hiring practices. In addition, Brown serves as a standard bearer for other institutions in the region. Its employment practices, therefore, impact the practices of both other institutions in the state and peer universities throughout the nation. The University also benefits from its reputation as a progressive and socially aware institution, a status it regularly boasts.
This reputation is furthered by the University’s purported commitments to supporting local communities by prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion. The University has established investment in diversity, equity and inclusion as a core priority. The Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan states a focus on strategies to “identify, recruit and retain faculty, students and staff who have been historically underrepresented in higher education.” If our commitment to historically underrepresented groups in higher education is to be comprehensive, it must include people who have been convicted of crimes.
Brown engages with incarcerated communities in academic, service and other contexts, benefitting from their ideas and experiences. The University offers classes related to prison education and the history of incarceration; Brown students work as teaching assistants in adult education classes in local prisons through the Petey Greene Program; Brown professors teach classes in prisons. As a University, we must be committed to addressing the real, fundamental issues facing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people as opposed to disengaging once we spend time with these people in a strictly academic context.
The University should revise its current hiring practices to better align with a fair-chance hiring policy — which would prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until they review the merits of the application. But the University should consider further changes. In an attempt to initiate this process, Railroad — a student group focused on resisting the prison industrial complex and reimagining criminal justice — has researched and drafted a proposal designed to modify the language of Brown’s non-discrimination statement to include formerly incarcerated people, revise its institutional background check policy and commit to increasing the hiring of formerly incarcerated people. Members of Railroad have met with University Human Resources administrators in order to begin the conversation. Beyond College Hill, the Providence community organizing group Direct Action for Rights and Equality currently promotes a Fair Chance Licensing Campaign aimed at reducing the barriers to professional licensing for people with criminal records.
As such, now is the perfect time for Brown to join in solidarity with the Providence community by taking a strong stance against employment discrimination.
Kunovenu Haimbodi ’22 and Anika Hutton ’22 are both members of Railroad. They can be reached at email@example.com and at firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.