On Monday, President Obama laid the groundwork for longterm changes in rehabilitating and reintegrating formerly incarcerated individuals in the United States. Proposing seven new measures, President Obama seeks to destigmatize those who have been convicted of crimes while providing equity across employment, education, and housing access for all citizens. The most popular of his announced measures is his push for federal employers to “ban the box.” And while this is a huge step forward in reducing the impacts of the prison industrial complex in society, there is still so much work to be done. Perhaps these changes are best understood in a larger context.

According to the White House,

“This Administration has taken a series of concrete actions to reduce the challenges and barriers that the formerly incarcerated confront, including through the work of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, a cabinet-level working group to support the federal government’s efforts to promote public safety and economic opportunity through purposeful cross-agency coordination and collaboration.”

Specifically, banning the box means that inquiries regarding individual applicants’ prior convictions or incarceration status will be delayed until the candidate has been given more time to make an appeal for the position to which they are applying. The administration suggested that “this action will better ensure that applicants from all segments of society, including those with prior criminal histories, receive a fair opportunity to compete for Federal employment.”

However, these suggestions raise the question: how will these changes impact non-Federal or private employees? According to the 2010 census, roughly 3 million people work in the Federal Government, approximately 40,000 of which actually work in corrections. These federal workers make up just about 2% of the total workforce in the United States, which totals nearly 123 million full-time workers. Therefore, while the President’s efforts are admirable, they will not affect the vast numbers of workers in the United States.

Comparatively, not every state, city, or county is inclined to adopt these policies. Only 19 states have elected to ‘ban the box.’ Also, conservative-leaning states like Texas and Florida are still against these laws while boasting some of the highest levels of incarceration in the country. Specifically, Texas is said to be the hardest place to do time anywhere in the United States. One can only imagine that rehabilitation, housing, and education access will remain major obstacles for the previously incarcerated in that state regardless of the efforts President Obama has made in the Capitol.

Through continued efforts to emphasize the marginalizing after effects of incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, President Obama is definitely working toward a more equitable social and political landscape in the United States. And while this analysis is not meant to suggest that President Obama’s efforts are unimportant or meaningless, it is meant to thoughtfully critique how mass incarceration affects not only the previously incarcerated but their families and the communities they call home.

Most clearly articulated in literature via Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowmass incarceration creates issues with housing, employment, and education access but it also silences entire communities at the ballot box and within supposedly safe spaces like neighborhoods and churches. Through systematic marginalization, political engagement for previously incarcerated individuals has become a foregone conclusion. Sadly, President Obama’s initiatives do nothing to address is this obvious inequity.

In terms of the gender specific effects of mass incarceration, Black women, though incarcerated at lower rates than Black men, are one of the highest growing incarcerated populations in the United States. And, in the 2010, Black women were incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of White women.  Some have gone so far as to describe these changes as “the over-incarceration of women” mainly because these women are often imprisoned for minor non-violent crimes. So, while the War on Drugs is often narrated to focus on Black and Latino men, it has clearly changed the demographics of women’s prisons as well.

Overall, President Obama’s efforts toward prison reform and equitable social policy for those impacted by our societal reliance on mass incarceration are admirable. They are necessary and valid. However, this work must continue. Prison reform cannot continue to hinge on colorblind, gender-neutral policies which appease mainstream political actors. Just as mass incarceration is brutal and ugly, so is the process of dismantling it.

Hopefully, these efforts are the first of many steps toward equity for these individuals and communities impacted by mass incarceration.


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