Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) hosted “Ban the Box: Removing Barriers to Reentry” at the FAMU College of Law in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday. The forum, announced in October, was held just days after President Barack Obama announced executive action to “Ban the Box” among federal employers. The symposium served as a way to foster academic discourse on issues regarding social justice, including an in-depth dialogue on the importance of providing pathways for rehabilitated criminal offenders to become contributing members of society.
FAMU President Elmira Mangum, Ph.D., said that FAMU has played a role in societal transfor mation for many years.
“I believe ‘Ban the Box’ discussions are a part of a much broader set of issues concerning social justice that students need to be aware of,” said Mangum, addressing the hundreds of attendees. “We have to seek solutions through inclusion.”
The forum’s panelists included TV’s Judge Greg Mathis, Sharon Ames-Dennard, Ph.D., Kofi Lomotey, Ph.D., Anthony Dixon, Ph.D., and Judge Belvin Perry. FAMU’s Provost Marcella David served as the moderator.
The first panel discussion was titled, “The Power to Overcome.” Previously incarcerated panelists shared their stories of triumph, which did not come without hardship.
Mathis outlined his transformation from a criminal youth to a criminal defense lawyer to the youngest elected judge in the state of Michigan. Mathis said that he had a three-year struggle with the state bar in Michigan to become a lawyer due to his criminal history.
Mathis said that he believes there is a direct correlation between education and incarceration and added that a shocking 80 percent of incarcerated persons have no high school diploma or GED certificate.
“Even those who want to lift themselves out of drug and crime-infested communities aren’t able to do so because of the failing public schools,” Mathis said. “And without education you’re doomed.”
Dixon, a FAMU alumnus and author of “Up from Incarceration,” agreed and said, “I think that the lack of education leads to hopelessness. Many young people give up way too early and accept that way of life.”
Dixon further explained that while he found himself behind bars after receiving his degree, the underlying message is the need for the community to provide opportunities for those who seek a better way of life. Dixon stated that he had trouble finding employment upon release and was even denied work as a gas station attendant before landing a job, after someone was finally willing to give him a chance.
“I stand before you as a person who had that second chance in life…an opportunity to turn things around,” Dixon said.
The second section of the forum featured a video presentation from alumnus and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who has championed “Ban the Box.” Gillum said, “Ban the Box” allows people to be measured by their capabilities, not their crimes.
“I believe people who have paid their debt to society ought to be given the chance to make it in our community. Finding employment is one of the biggest challenges that formerly incarcerated people face,” said Gillum, who was being honored the same night for his service to the community at the Root 100 Gala.
Judge Perry echoed this sentiment asking, “While we want people to pay their debt to society, why do we shackle them and chain them to their pasts?”
The next panel discussion was titled, “Barriers to Restoring Citizenship.”
Lomotey stated that a released inmate has a 50 percent chance of returning to prison. He added that providing more educational opportunities could help to mitigate this.
“I’m not one to believe that education is the cure-all, but I do think that it has an impact,” Lomotey said.
Lomotey also spoke about recent reports of children being suspended or expelled from school as early as pre-school. He underscored the important role the education system plays in navigating young people toward being productive members of society and away from a life of crime.
“There is no school to prison pipeline. There is a pre-school to prison pipeline,” Lomotey said.
Dennard, a clinical psychologist, community activist, and business owner, said that we have to learn to combat inequities with solutions.
Other solutions to rehabilitation offered include mentorship, trade and workforce training, familial support, and creating a network of community support.
“Recognize that no man is an island, and we truly do need each other to survive,” Dixon said.
The forum was a component of President Elmira Mangum’s Lecture Series, which is designed to empower and enlighten students, faculty, staff, and the community.
“‘Ban the Box’ is really intended to give people a chance not to be automatically disqualified from an opportunity,” David said.