She spent 40 years in and out of prison — unable, she says, to move beyond the box that labeled her a criminal.
Each time Marilynn B. Winn, now 62, was released she found herself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Check the box or boost her chances of getting a job and being able to fend for herself.
More often than not, Winn checked the box.
“I never even got a call for an interview,” she said. “To put food on the table, I’d shoplift.”
But by 2007, Winn said she’d grown too tired to keep traveling in circles. “I changed my thinking,” she said.
She eventually found a full-time job but decided to try to help others break the cycle faster. In 2011 she helped launch the “Ban the Box” campaign by workplace advocacy group 9to5. It seeks to persuade employers to eliminate the box on a job application that asks whether applicants have been arrested or convicted of a crime.
The policy prohibits questions about criminal history until a conditional employment offer is on the table. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines to employers cautioning about using conviction records that could result in discrimination.
For her work on the issue, Winn is set to receive 9to5’s first Lillie Ledbetter award during the Atlanta chapter’s 40th anniversary celebration Oct. 15 at the Cosby Academic Center Auditorium at Spelman College.
Lilly Ledbetter inspired President Obama in 2009 to sign the Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to make claims of pay discrimination. The award recognizes special contributions of a 9to5 member.
“Miss Marilynn played a key role in recruiting people who’d been incarcerated and helping us think through our goals,” said Charmaine Davis, director for 9to5 Atlanta. “She collected petition signatures from people who supported the policy change. She did presentations to educate people directly impacted on why the change was important.”
Joblessness, Davis said, is a major motivator in theft, burglary and violent crimes. Recidivism is lower in states with laws restricting employment discrimination based on past incarceration, she said.
Ban the Box, advocates say, isn’t about hiding a person’s criminal background but rather allowing applicants to be judged on their qualifications and to be given a chance, once offered a position, to explain the nature of their crime, how long it’s been since their incarceration and the steps they’ve taken toward rehabilitation.
When computers scan job applications, a check in that box can mean an immediate disqualification without giving the applicant a chance to explain.
Atlhough details vary, six states and many other jurisdictions, including Atlanta, have ban-the-box laws on their books.
Sally Roberts, director-elect of Georgia’s Society for Human Resource Management, said the organization hasn’t taken a position on removing the box but noted that in some cases - bank and credit card processing jobs - applicants are barred from having a criminal background.
“I’d be naïve to say that everybody who owns a company might agree, but HR professionals are trained to not get distracted by something in somebody’s background,” she said. “No one is perfect and everyone deserves a second chance for sure to explain things… Our job is to find the right person for the job. Background checks are only part of what is assessed in order to make a hiring decision.”
A 2012 survey by the group’s national organization found that 58 percent of organizations allow job candidates to explain the results of their criminal checks.
After her last arrest for shoplifting, Winn said, “I made up my mind to be hungry, broke and homeless but I refused to go back to prison.”
In court, she said she told the judge she needed help. The judge agreed she could enroll into Fulton County Accountability Court program rather than face jail time.
She took a job two days a week and volunteered to fill in for no-shows. Eventually the employer increased her workdays to five a week.
In 2008, Winn started volunteering with 9to5. She became a member of the Atlanta chapter’s board of directors and then its co-chair. She approached Davis about the box.
“I’d been discriminated against basically all of my life because of my background,” Winn said she told her. “You know the box that asks if you’ve ever been arrested, convicted of a felony? Once I check that box, I never got an interview. And when I didn’t check the box, I’d get the job.”
In March 2010, Winn called a meeting of formerly incarcerated and unemployed women. Thirty showed up, she said.
The group became known as the Reformed Citizen Committee. They helped launch the Ban the Box campaign. In December, Davis left her old job to work full-time on the effort with 9to5.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to work in a pie factory, but my life has turned all the way around,” Winn said recently.
Davis said she nominated Winn for the award not only because she is a member of 9to5 but because she had been directly affected by an injustice and is now leading a campaign to fix it.
“That makes her pretty incredible,” Davis said.
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