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Ban the Box: How a local company is making it easier for ex-inmates to find work

Former inmates have a difficult time finding work, but some employers say the workforce is overlooking a valuable resource
Posted at 6:13 PM, Jul 07, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A lot of people dread the thought of going to work daily but for some, it’s a blessing that few can understand.

Take Daril Streets. In 1983, Streets was sentenced to 20-years in prison for an armed robbery. He spent time in Jackson, Ionia, Muskegon and Marquette until his release in 2003, then it was time to look for a job.

“I went through a lot of different temp services with the broken promises that the company’s going to hire you,” said Streets. “They’ll work you 90-days then send you on your way.”

Discouraged, Streets bounced from temp job to temp job until he found the solution to his problem. Gluten Free Bros., a Grand Rapids-based company, was hiring and wanted to bring Streets on full-time, regardless of his criminal record.

“This company, they didn’t care about that,” he said. “I was skeptical, but then I realized they actually want to hire me, and you feel good.”

Gluten Free Bros. is part of a larger hiring movement nationwide to give employment to more returning citizens without questioning their criminal backgrounds. Sometimes referred to as a ‘ban the box’ initiative, companies like GFB are now leaving the criminal history section off their job applications altogether.

“We don’t ask that question on the job application,” said owner Elliott Rader. “We look at everybody equally, everybody gets a fair chance.”

When Elliott and his brother Marshall started the business about a decade ago, it was admittedly not their first concern. Both brothers had been diagnosed with Celiac disease in their 20s. Elliott, who worked in tech, and Marshall who worked in paint sales, could never find something good and gluten-free to eat on the road.

“Back then, when you went to a restaurant and said, oh, I’m gluten free, no one knew what it meant,” said Marshall. “The gluten free world has come a long way since then.”

Aside from placing their items on major retail shelves in only a decade’s time, the facility is also zero-waste and runs on solar and wind energy – the company partnered with Consumers Energy and uses renewable energy credits to power their operation.

Several years ago, they were approached by Butterball Farms and Cascade Engineering – two local companies – about a new program to get more former inmates into the workforce.

The 30-2-2 program encouraged 30 local companies to hire two returning citizens for a retention time of at least two years. GFB hopped on board and even now, with the initiative faded out, they still cling to the practice.

“There’s a lot of people out there that have had some challenges in their life but want to make thing better,” said Elliott. “It’s an open secret now. Companies are starting to understand this.”

In a labor market where companies are struggling to hire and retain people, the largely untapped group of returning citizens could be the solution.

“I think the shortage of labor is forcing the conversation in the right direction,” says Tony Gant, a policy analyst with Nation Outside. “There are all these people that really do want to work, and a lot of data shows that people with criminal records, formerly incarcerated people, are going to be some of the best employees that you going to get. Because one, they know they don’t have a lot of opportunities, and two, they have something to prove.”

The cities of Detroit and Kalamazoo both have municipal ordinances that stipulate contractors doing more than $25,000 for the city have to leave the criminal application question off their job applications for those projects. But it’s individual companies Gant and Streets want on board – Gant said recently, the Jackson Chamber of Commerce talked to their members about hiring returning citizens in what’s a promising sign of things moving in the right direction.

“You’ve got a lot of ex-inmates, like me, we willing to work, but ain’t nobody willing to give us a chance,” said Streets. “You can pay your bills, you can work your way back into society and be productive, pay taxes, gain some respect.”

For more on Gluten Free Bros., click here.

For more on Nation Outside and the work they do, click here.

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