Jamie hopes Ban the Box can help more people with criminal convictions change their lives

By Andrew Maguire, Communications Officer, Business in the Community

Jamie, an ex-offender who spent five months in prison, has highlighted the important role initiatives such as Ban the Box play in helping people with criminal convictions receive a fair chance to secure employment.

Ban the Box encourages companies to ask about criminal convictions at a later stage in the application process, with research suggesting the current ‘tick box’ method used by most employers creates a barrier for people with convictions, tells employers very little, and reduces the potential talent pool employers can access.

Jamie was arrested in 2017 on drug charges, convicted in February 2019, and sentenced to eighteen months in Hydebank. He received conditional early release after five months and spent the rest of his sentence on license. He applied for more than one hundred jobs while in prison and was able to return to employment one month after his release.

Jamie was relieved that the efforts he made in prison helped him find employment so quickly, but the impact his conviction had on his employment opportunities remains clear to him, and he hopes the Ban the Box campaign will allow more people to transform their lives just as he has.

Jamie admits that when first entering prison it’s very easy to succumb to your situation and just lie about. However, he believes his eventual early release was down to his own endeavour. He worked as an orderly, then spent seven weeks as a cleaner; he was continually on good behaviour, constantly passed drug tests, and even continued the Open University studies he’d was involved in before his sentence. As such, he was gradually moved into an enhanced regime which allowed him increased freedoms, more time outdoors, and eventually the early release and thus granted him the chance to get his life back on track earlier than anticipated.

He was aware, however, that this wasn’t going to be easy. Even if he could change his ways and avoid the previous mistakes he had made, he knew his past was going to follow him in some capacity.

75% of employers admit to discriminating unfairly when the conviction box is ticked on application forms, meaning many people with convictions miss out on interviews and job opportunities for which they would otherwise have been suitable.

A tick box asking about previous criminal convictions puts candidates in a difficult position, unable to explain their circumstances and often feeling certain that if they tick it, they will be ruled out.

This was certainly Jamie’s experience. Having been in full-time employment before his conviction, he began looking for work while serving his sentence. Despite sending a lot of applications, he was invited for very few interviews, and it was only when he applied for a promotion with his previous employer that he was finally successful.

Jamie says, “I was applying for anything and everything, including minimum wage jobs and jobs that I was overqualified for, but I found that any time the application form had a criminal conviction box, I wouldn’t get an interview or any feedback. I applied for over one hundred jobs and got three interviews. Of those interviews, two hadn’t included a convictions box in the application and the other was my previous employer. I wasn’t getting feedback from the other employers, so I can’t say for sure that it was my conviction that was keeping me out, but that’s certainly the gut instinct I had at the time and still have now.”

Jamie is a chemist, currently employed to run a wet chemical lab for a materials testing company. Following the low point of his time in prison, he says employment like this is hugely significant for him.

“I didn’t receive confirmation of having this job until about a month after I left Hydebank. In that time, I was told I wasn’t eligible for universal credit, benefits, or health insurance, so it was a very stressful, demoralising period for me. I was constantly reworking and editing my CV but having worked all through my teenage years and my adult life, I now found I wasn’t being considered for entry-level positions. It was only when I found out I had secured my current job that I could relax, knowing at least where my bill money was coming from and how I was going to get by. Before that, when you don’t know those things, it’s hard to put yourself in a position where you can start to look forward and strive towards bettering yourself and getting back on track.”

Despite the difficulties Jamie felt in the month after his release, he was able to secure employment relatively quickly. For people without the likelihood of employment or the chance of credit or benefits, and especially for those without the support of family and friends, leaving prison is far from the end of their problems, as the state of pressure and uncertainty they enter can last for months or even years.

Organisations signed up to Ban the Box in Northern Ireland have so far positively impacted available opportunities for people with convictions, covering more than 60,000 roles, where the risk of unfair discrimination is significantly reduced. Jamie hopes that this success so far, along with the example he and others have shown, will encourage more employers to give people with convictions a chance.

Jamie says “It’s quite easy for me to understand how people with no likelihood of employment or even accommodation get into the cycle of reoffending, and it’s a shame to see that happen. I think employers should treat people on an individual basis. The conviction question on an application form doesn’t differentiate one crime from another, one person from another, or one set of circumstances from another. Not all circumstances that lead people to criminal convictions are the same, and not all crimes are directly relevant to every industry. People are different, and more often than not they deserve a second chance.”

To find out more about Ban the Box visit bitcni.org/banthebox or contact sara.neilson@bitcni.org.uk