On Thursday, Nov. 4, VC Prison Divest shared via Instagram Vassar Human Resources’ announcement that the College had “banned the box” during the employment process, meaning that the College will no longer ask prospective employees about their criminal history on job applications. “The box” refers to the check box found on Vassar’s hiring applications inquiring about an applicant’s criminal record. Vice President of Information Technology and Human Resources Carlos García noted that Vassar may still conduct relevant criminal background checks as required for some jobs, such as those positions requiring contact with vulnerable persons, access to sensitive areas on campus and/or significant financial responsibility.
Many students were satisfied with the College’s decision to ban the box. When Christopher Unruh ’23 first saw VC Prison Divest’s Instagram post, he was excited about the College’s decision: “I agree with the decision to remove the box. I mean, it was really great news to hear that they had removed it.”
Unruh shared that Vassar banning the box is an example of the College putting into practice what it often preaches. He stated, “Vassar has this whole thing where we say that we’re like this paradise of liberalism and equality and all of these ideals. But yet we h[ad] these policies in place, which disproportionately harm certain communities.” Unruh continued, “If we’re going to say these types of things … and promote these types of ideas, they [administration] better live up to what they have to say.”
A national civil rights organization composed of formerly-incarcerated individuals and their families known as All of Us or None started the Ban the Box campaign in 2003 (The New York Times, 2016). They intend to convince employers to ban the box on their hiring applications so that ex-offenders are not automatically disqualified from the hiring pool due to prejudice before having the opportunity to fully demonstrate their qualifications.
Employment discrimination against formerly-incarcerated individuals is highly prevalent in the U.S., which has the highest incarcerated population in the world at 2,068,800 people as of 2019 (Word Prison Brief, 2019). According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for formerly-imprisoned people is nearly five times higher than that of the general U.S. populus (Prison Policy Initiative, 2018).
The Ban the Box Movement is widespread: As of 2021, the District of Columbia, 37 states (including New York) and over 150 cities and counties across the U.S. have adopted a ban the box policy for public-sector employment. Moreover, 15 states and 22 cities and counties have mandated the removal of conviction history questions on job applications for private employers. New York City, Suffolk County and Westchester County have adopted this extended policy (National Employment Law Project, 2021).
Student activists helped inform the College’s decision to remove the criminal history question on employee applications. In particular, VC Prison Divest, a student-led coalition between Vassar’s Black Students’ Union, Gradient and Vassar Prison Initiative spearheaded the movement. VC Prison Divest launched the Vassar College Prison Divestment Campaign during the spring of last year. At this time, they circulated a statement and petition outlining their demands for the College’s divestment from the Prison Industrial Complex, one of which was banning the box.
Since the campaign launched, VC Prison Divest has engaged in continuous discussion with various administrative offices across campus in order to reach the goals outlined during their spring campaign. According to VC Prison Divest organizer Xade Wharton-Ali ’22, the organization’s members have met with different heads of offices, such as the Office of Admission, Human Resources, Finance and Administration and the Chief Financial Officer . “It was a lot of education that needed to happen in terms of educating the higher ups of each of the offices [about] the intellectual and moral basis of our arguments,” Wharton-Ali recalled.
Elaborating on the importance of these conversations, fellow VC Prison Divest organizer Jhujhar Sarna ’22 stated, “I think our goal was really to make sure that when we work towards these demands [for prison divestment] that we try to work with the administration, because we felt [that] more can get done if we’re able to sit in these rooms and have conversations with them.”
Vassar’s administration acknowledged the role of student activism in this decision. García stated, “We are grateful to the VC Prison Divest group for bringing new attention to this matter.” He continued, “They provided very helpful insights into the impact of continuing to ask the criminal history question and, as importantly, the benefits of removing it.”
Before banning the box, Vassar had attempted to take steps to mitigate hiring bias against formerly-incarcerated applicants. García explained, “In the past, Vassar had made changes to the way it asked about criminal history so as to give prospective employees the option of declining to answer.” However, after reflection, the College realized that their current policies could be improved: “In reevaluating the issue today, we determined that we could do more—and that forcing prospective applicants to decline to answer a sensitive question may nevertheless have a chilling effect on job applications and/or signal to prospective applicants and the public that it was Vassar’s intent to filter job applications based on the people’s responses to that question,” stated García.
Although VC Prison Divest organizer Chelsea Quayenortey ’22 was pleased with the College’s decision, she felt as though they could have taken such actions sooner: “I feel like it’s something that should have been done a long time ago. And it’s something that a lot of institutions have already done … As an institution, we should be more on top of things like this,” she said.
Despite slower progress than they would like, other members of VC Divest noted that Vassar’s decision to ban the box is a step in the right direction. As organizer Sulekh Fernando-Peiris ’22 noted, “When we started this, the box was not banned … I think one of the things that we want people to notice is that stuff is happening and…more stuff would happen if more people were to do it.”
The head organizers of VC Prison Divest all shared the common sentiment that banning the box is a good starting point but more work still needs to be done. As Wharton-Ali stated, “There’s still a lot of uncharted territory that we haven’t gotten into. I feel like this is definitely only the start.”
Currently, VC Prison Divest is working on recruiting and dividing members and volunteers up into department-specific working groups, which include the following: Investment/Financials, Human Resources, Admissions and Title IV. Each group focuses on implementing policies and changes that help the College reach the broader prison divestment goals outlined during VC Prison Divest’s campaign, such as the College providing full transparency about what companies and funds they are invested in, divesting from those that use prison-labor and reinvesting in those that practice restorative justice.
Members of VC Divest also hope for more engagement from Vassar students going forward. Sarna articulated this sentiment: “This is an issue that affects every single Vassar student because we all benefit from the prison industrial complex, and I feel like this is something that people should feel passionate about.”
While student-led initiatives will persist, the College believes that banning the box demonstrates Vassar’s dedication to dismantling historically oppressive systems. As García put it, “Removing the criminal history question from Vassar’s job applications…signals to both our community and the public that we are committed to ending cycles of structural racism that may have found their way into Vassar’s own systems over time.”