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Formerly Incarcerated People Seek Discrimination Protection as “Protected Class”

Formerly incarcerated people in Atlanta won collective protection from discrimination, inspiring organizing nationwide.

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Bridgette Simpson said she was a bright-eyed and bushy tailed 23-year-old college graduate when she suddenly found herself living a nightmare. A judge had just ruled on her traffic ticket in New Jersey, when she was suddenly surrounded by a sea of cops. Her ex-fiancé had used her car for robberies in Georgia, and she was being arrested and extradited for accessory to armed robbery. “I thought my life was going to be one way and it did not turn out that way,” Simpson told Truthout. “My district attorney, Paul Howard, knew I didn’t commit the crimes. He didn’t care. They were very adamant about getting me locked up.”

It was Simpson’s first time being charged with any crimes and she was petrified. After her mom bonded her out of jail with funds she scraped together from selling her home, Simpson was forced to wear an ankle monitor that cost $600 a month. Fired from her job, emotionally exhausted and without competent counsel, she decided to take a plea deal for what she thought was a two-year stint in Georgia’s state prison system. It turned out to be 10.

Fast forward to her release in 2018, and Simpson was jolted with another surprise: Her formerly incarcerated status barred her from accessing the basic things she needed for survival, like employment and housing. “I wasn’t able to get a place to live, I applied to like, 40 plus places. ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no,’” she said. “I applied for 40 plus jobs. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ I considered just driving off the road, because I just didn’t understand the purpose for my life. Is it just to constantly suffer and just go through this cycle?”

Simpson is just one of an estimated 24 million people who have felony convictions in the U.S. population today, compared with 2 million in 1948. Sixty-five percent of formerly incarcerated people do not have jobs at the four-year mark post-release and formerly incarcerated people are about 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general population, largely because of the institutionalized barriers people face upon conviction.

These “collateral consequences,” as the state calls them, have existed in the U.S. since the colonial era, but have worsened in terms of severity over the past 20 years, according to legal researchers with Berkley’s Othering & Belonging Institute. “Collateral consequences have contributed to the production of a class of people defined primarily through their criminal record,” they wrote.

Facing a dearth of jobs, many formerly incarcerated people like Simpson start their own small businesses. But then, at the beginning of the pandemic, Simpson was told she couldn’t apply for small business loans because of her formerly incarcerated status. She and her former prison roommate Denise Ruben decided to take matters into their own hands by launching Barred Business, a membership-based organization with a mission of helping formerly incarcerated people. They kicked off a mutual aid fund for formerly incarcerated small business owners, raising over $100,000 and doling out more than 100 grants.

After starting the mutual aid fund, Simpson and Ruben began asking, “What would it look like if we were protected from what’s become a handicap to us?” They settled on a comprehensive solution: establishing incarcerated people as a protected class.

Simpson and Ruben built an organization-based coalition and initiated the Atlanta Protected Campaign in June 2022. After just several months of organizing and canvassing, Atlanta’s city council amended an ordinance to include protections on the basis of criminal history in October 2022, making Atlanta the first city in the U.S. to categorize formerly incarcerated people as a protected class. This means employers, businesses, banks, schools and landlords can no longer legally discriminate against people with a criminal record, just as the law prohibits discrimination based on race, age, gender, and other characteristics.

Building on the momentum of this success, Simpson and others are forming what they’re calling a “Protected Class Network” of Black-led groups across the country that agree to push protected class legislation for formerly incarcerated people in their own city councils. So far, they’ve connected with organizers in Chicago, Miami, Nashville, Minneapolis and Baltimore. Simpson says she expects legislation to be introduced in these cities around late September, and eventually, she hopes they can work together to challenge federal laws.

“There’s an African proverb that always sticks with me: ‘If you want to go fast, then you go alone, but if you want to go far, you have to go together,’” said Simpson. “So that is what we’re doing right now. We are making plans to go together.”

William Freeman, a formerly incarcerated organizer and president of Redistribute Agency and Wealth (RAW) Trust, a foundation advocating for the decolonization of wealth and providing resources for the Black community to self-organize, started organizing around protected class legislation after reading an article about Atlanta’s amended ordinance.

Freeman told Truthout that the barriers formerly incarcerated people face amount to systemic entrapment. “A person might not want to steal, a person might not want to sell drugs or rob, but if you need to steal to eat, and your stomach is talking to you, you’re more likely to steal to eat, and that’s known,” said Freeman. “And so it’s also known where we can live at, and where we can’t live, so the outcome of that is hyper-police activity in areas, right? It’s a manufacturing of crime. It’s a manufacturing of disenfranchisement, homelessness, and all these other things, and then they collect us in these areas.… And if one person gets something to eat, and everybody’s not eaten, now that escalates into some first-degree assault, murder, robbery, kidnapping. It’s the systems put in place around the community that have us moving like that.”

Freeman connected with Simpson over the phone, and then she invited him to her home in Atlanta. When he got back to Baltimore, he connected with people he described as wealthy folks who are aligning themselves as allies to formerly incarcerated people. They crafted legislation based on Atlanta’s amended ordinance, and his contacts passed along the legislation to Maryland Congressman David Trone. In the meantime, Freeman and others are working to build a local coalition to pass protected class legislation in Baltimore.

Both Freeman and Simpson said that getting legislation passed is just one step of a long process toward ending discrimination against formerly incarcerated people. Landlords and employers still discriminate based on race and gender, for example, despite it being technically illegal to do so. And some evidence shows that “ban the box” legislation, which prohibits employers from asking about criminal history on job applications, has actually backfired. One field study found employers without access to a person’s carceral history made assumptions about applicants’ records based on their race, and were less likely to call back Black applicants. However, another study found ban the box policies raised the probability of public employment for those with convictions by 30 percent.

With accountability in mind, Atlanta’s Protected Campaign is pushing for another round of legislation, called the Protected Reinvestment Plan, that includes the creation of a task force of protected class populations to oversee the process of ensuring the legislation is properly enforced. It also will divest $3 million from the city budget and reinvest it in safe, secure housing, resource centers and wealth-building directives for residents who are most impacted by mass incarceration, according to Barred Business. Atlanta Councilman Matt Westmoreland will introduce the plan on February 20. Westmoreland, who introduced the first bill as well, voted in favor of “Cop City,” a widely protested $90 million police training facility that would destroy more than 400 acres of forested land. Westmoreland did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment at the time of publication.

Apparent supporters of the prison-industrial complex like Westmoreland may be supportive of such legislation because the capitalist class is struggling to fill empty jobs. In other words, the material conditions appear to be ripe for lowering barriers for formerly incarcerated people to enter the workforce. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are 10 million job openings in the U.S., but only 5.7 million unemployed workers. “Consider one possible cohort of nontraditional workers: those who have had run-ins with the law,” wrote McKinsey, a consulting firm infamous for fueling the opioid crisis and profiting off U.S. imperialism, in an article teaching employers how to combat the worker shortage. “Many states now have ‘ban the box’ policies that require companies to remove any questions about convictions or arrest records from job applications and to delay background checks until later in the hiring process.” In 2021, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a dossier in support of what it calls second chance hiring.

While the drivers behind what’s been called the Great Resignation are multifaceted, the mass exit from the workplace, in part, represents U.S. workers’ disillusionment with what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs.” The vast majority of jobs that exist under the current system do not exist to meaningfully improve our collective well-being, they exist to make the wealthy even wealthier. During the pandemic, millions of people were able to reflect on the time that they had been squandering with pointless work, and quit.

But formerly incarcerated people — many of whom are houseless — don’t have the luxury of exiting from the workplace. “People just want to live and just want to have decent lives where they can earn and grow and thrive,” said Simpson. “To vote, to have some electoral power, have some economic mobility. Folks just want to be normal. That’s all that we’re asking for, is the opportunity to be normal.”

The “opportunity to be normal,” as Simpson puts it, is urgently necessary for those who are struggling to survive. A push toward economic self-determination for the Black working class sits parallel to the movement for equality and rights. Groups like Cooperation Jackson aim to “place the ownership and control over the primary means of production directly in the hands of the Black working class of Jackson.” Cooperation Jackson emphasizes building a solidarity economy where goods are produced and distributed according to needs rather than according to the dictates of a capitalist market. Under an economic and political system that views people as inherently worthy of a dignified and joyful life, one can imagine how protected class legislation would eventually become obsolete, or unnecessary.

Building such an alternative political economy is an arduous process, and the infrastructure isn’t yet in place to provide immediate relief for masses of people at once. Simpson and Freeman see protected class legislation as one of the quickest ways to make the lives of formerly incarcerated people more survivable. “We are all ready for real life change, like not change that we’re desiring 10 or 20 years from now, but material changes that we can see today,” said Simpson. “We’re salivating for it.”

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