Activist in Prison Garb Chains Himself to Pole Protesting Unequal Employment for Felons
By Sara Macneil, Shreveport Times
One question really shook Felicia Smith during her second job interview after serving 12 and a half years in prison.
"How do we know you're not going to go back to what you went to prison for?"
Smith told the employer she made a mistake that cost her gravely. She missed years of her daughter's life. She left her child at 17 months old and didn't come home until she was 14. It didn't take long being incarcerated on a non-violent, drug conviction to deter her from making the same mistake again.
Smith was granted clemency on former President Barrack Obama's last day in office. But she's still faced challenges transitioning back into the community.
She was released in 2017 and spent six months searching for a job when she got out. She was required to apply for jobs every day of her first month living in a halfway house. She filled out application after application. No one called.
"No one was really willing to hire me, even though they had hiring signs on the door," she said.
According to a July 2018 article from Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is nearly five times higher than the unemployment rate for the general United States population. Evidence shows that having a record reduces employer callback rates by 50%, Prison Policy Initiative reports.
Last year, formerly incarcerated people were unemployed at a rate of more than 27% — exceeding the highest level of unemployment ever recorded in the U.S. The rate was 24.9% during the Great Depression.
September 2017, Smith got her first paying job at a sweet potato plant. After only two years of being out, Smith is an organizer with the Shreveport Chapter of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a grassroots organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated people.
Smith is one of the people an activist advocated for Monday. Wearing an orange prison uniform, the activist chained himself to a pole across the street from Caddo Parish Court House for at least five hours. DeAveon Benjamin protested for equal employment opportunities for felons.
Benjamin said he hoped his peaceful demonstration would draw the attention of lawmakers. Unequal employment contributes to violence in the black community, he said.
Job discrimination against felons happens in a number of ways. Workplaces that require employees to obtain state licenses would remove someone with a felony from the applicant pool. Getting licenses often requires a background check.
Due to racially disproportionate incarceration rates, employers who discriminate against people with criminal records could be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from racial discrimination. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals due to race, religion, color, nationality or another protected basis.
A campaign called Ban the Box is aimed at removing the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record from employment applications. The campaign pushes employers to choose candidates based on qualifications rather than past convictions.
More than 45 cities and counties, including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle and San Francisco removed the question about conviction history from applications, according to the Ban the Box website.