The hallmark of a democracy is the ability to vote for the people charged with representing you in government. Millions of us choose not to participate — although this month’s election seems poised to break records in terms of turnout (94% of registered voters say they have already voted or plan to, vs. 83% in 2016).
But there are two groups of Americans who long have been denied that basic right of citizenship and suddenly have that opportunity this year: One is incarcerated D.C. residents, thanks to a bill passed by the district council in July. And then there are the “juvenile lifers” who began to be released starting in 2018, thanks to D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act.
Whether still behind bars or recently released, are they taking advantage of this new privilege? Why or why not? And if not, what can be done to turn their numbers into power at the polls?
Here’s what a few of those D.C. men had to say to Rob’s editor and collaborator, Pam Bailey. After all, as the 51 for 51 statehood campaign says in its slogan, “We are D.C.”
Did/do you follow the elections while behind bars?
Kareem McCraney, first to be released under IRAA and now a program analyst for the Corrections Information Council: I’ve always been politically inclined. But in prison, it was mostly national politics. It’s hard to keep up with local affairs, since we were imprisoned in other states and there was no opportunity to hear anything about D.C. politics. (D.C. does not have its own prison, instead contracting with the federal government.)
James Dunn, released last year: Just about everybody in prison is always hoping that whomever becomes president will pass laws to help them get out. Or, we think about how they could help our families or communities. So yeah, we followed the national elections at least. But when it came to criminal justice reform, the politicians seemed to just want to talk about people convicted of nonviolent crimes. Why weren’t we given a second chance? Being around lots of these guys, I understood people can and do change. We felt like the whole system was broken.
Roy Middleton, released last year: The way I see it, politics is kind of like life — people interacting, compromising, lying, trying to get what they want using leverage. I’m a big history buff. So, it’s just naturally something I’ve always paid attention to. I know now that you can make the most difference in local politics, but that was harder to follow in the feds.
Mike Plummer, released last year: I follow world history. I know history repeats. And when I look at the condition of my people, I see that voting has gotten my people nothing. The only time politicians want to do something for Blacks is when they’re trying to get into office and the last year of their term, when they’re trying to be re-elected. We built this country on our backs and we still ain’t got nothing.
That was true even when Barack Obama was the first African American president. There were probably more Blacks murdered by police officers during his time than at any other period before. It doesn’t matter who’s in office.
Pete Petty, now held in the D.C. jail as he awaits his IRAA hearing at the end of the month: For me, reading is what got me interested in politics and elections. When you’re locked down, you have nothing to do. My cellie might want to play chess, but I like to read. I started with mysteries and thrillers by Sidney Shelton, Harold Robinson, Jackie Collins, all set in exotic places. Once I started learning about them, it opened my mind, and I broadened my interests.
My whole worldview started changing and I began to try to stay up on what was going on. I felt as though all these things could affect me.
I wasn’t alone. Contrary to public perception, guys in prison, at least the majority of the older guys, follow elections. We’re always hoping a new law will come that can help us.
And although we couldn’t get the inside scoop on the people running for council positions, everybody always knew about Eleanor Holmes Norton because she’s represented D.C. for so long in Congress. And she really helped a lot of guys. If you wrote her, she wrote back.
Rob Barton: I’ve been interested in politics and elections for a long time, due to my reading and studying about history and how our government works. But the first time I really got engaged in an election was when Obama ran for president, because he is Black and I could see myself in him. But I’ve never had any illusions. America has an imperialistic government that just takes and takes and takes.
Did you vote this year? Does it seem like it matters?
Kareem: Just by virtue of voting as my right and this being the first time I can exercise it, it’s important and so yes, I did. This is how people’s voices are heard, through the electoral process.
But I’m not enthused by either candidate. Neither candidate speaks to me or my demographic, where I come from. A lot of us are not happy with Joe Biden’s comment that anyone uncertain about whether to support him or Trump “ain’t black.” How can he have the audacity to say that?
Biden also supported the crime bill (Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), which helped grow mass incarceration, and predicted that many Black kids could become “predators.”
James: Having the privilege to vote for the first time is an honor. But…now that I’m out (of prison), I’m also kind of wrestling with it. I mean, I’m going to vote. But it’s become clear that out here, whomever controls the media controls the narrative. I’m trying to figure out what’s truthful and what’s a lie. One side says one thing and the other side says another. I’m kind of losing faith in the whole system.
The Democrats haven’t done much for a lot of my people. At least under Trump’s administration, the prison gates have opened for some.
I do believe, though, that we have a responsibility to vote and I’m becoming more conscious that it’s not just about the presidency. It’s about the judges and the mayors and all the way down the ladder.
Roy: I am dropping my ballot in a dropbox today. I guess you could say I feel excitement to some extent. I’ve always wondered why an individual would be denied the right to vote because they committed a crime, as if a person is no longer a citizen. So now that my right has been restored, I’m going to take advantage of it.
But how effective is my vote? I don’t really put much weight in it. It’s a civic duty, whether we think it works or not. Locally, it’s another matter. Listen, I wouldn’t be out of prison if not for local politics.
Mike: I won’t vote for the presidency. People talk about voting for the lesser evil. But if either one is that bad, why put them there? Ok, I know people can change. And if Biden and Harris get into office and help African American people, then I’ll say I was wrong and be for them.
The local elections are different. But we have to ask candidates what they are going to do for the city, for the disenfranchised people who don’t have anything. Are they going to bring housing? Health care? Jobs? Those are my concerns. We’ve been talking about health care for how long now? This is one of the richest countries in the world and we’re still squandering people’s lives.
Pete: I voted! But this election scares me to the point where I worry for my family. Take the trucks that followed and surrounded the Joe Biden campaign bus. And then you have rightwing militia members threatening to kidnap the governor of Michigan just because they believe she should open up the state! My family doesn’t believe in guns, but they have to protect themselves. Who knows what could happen!
Biden and Trump are like the fox and the wolf. But I truly believe the lesser of the two evils is Joe Biden.
Rob: I wanted to vote, but the Virginia jail where I am being held now wouldn’t give me an absentee ballot. I think voting is very important though. I’m skeptical in the sense that I don’t really believe anybody can change everything that needs to be changed in our system. But I also know the only way that anything can begin to change, especially now, is for us all to vote.
Even when incarcerated or recently released people are able to vote, they often don’t. How can we change this, along with the impact they have?
Start with education
Roy: People don’t believe their voice matters after having been through the courts and dealt with the government. Plus, a lot of people are confused about how it all works. For example, why do we allow the electoral college to overrule the popular vote? It all just seems like a scam. We have to do a lot of educating.
James: When people don’t get how the system works, you can’t hold the politicians accountable. But once they become aware of what’s really going on, I believe we can participate in a way that can really change some things.
Create a voting bloc
Rob: Most people in our community are disengaged because they feel as though politicians only come around when it’s voting time, and then sell them a dream while we’re left in poverty. It doesn’t matter if they’re Black or white. That’s why we have to form a bloc, along with our families, that can’t be ignored.
Pete: I’m already looking at myself as part of a voting bloc. We could really have a voice!
Roy: Maybe we can also influence who stands for office. What would motivate people, I think, are quality candidates. If people see candidates who are more aligned with their issues, then they will be motivated to get involved. Maybe even recruit candidates who come from similar situations.
Mike: You ever see a piece of fruit that looked good on the outside, but then you bite into it and discover it is rotten? That’s like most politicians. One of us could run for office, but if you weren’t already involved in our cause and knew us, would you feel comfortable with a convicted felon holding office? I don’t think people are ready for that.
Kareem: I am chair of the D.C. Democratic Caucus for Returning Citizens, part of the district’s Democratic State Committee. The purpose of the caucus is first and foremost to be a political bloc for returning citizens, so we can push the issues that directly affect us. For example, we just organized a Zoom meet-and-greet with Robert White, who is running for re-election as one of the council’s members-at-large.
Unfortunately, I can’t do the same thing for guys in prison, except informally through my network.
Rob: D.C.’s Ward 8, which has the highest rate of incarceration, has 80,000 people. Yet its council member won his election with only 4,000-something votes. That’s a huge block of people who aren’t voting. If we ask all of our family members to vote, and then also extend into the prisons, we can create a real ripple effect. We can be a voting bloc that must be listened to.
But we have to be specific about what we want. We can’t just say “stop killing and hurting us.” I think that’s why a lot of our protests get swept under the rug, because in a lot of ways, nobody’s saying what we really want because we don’t know what we want.
Are you optimistic change will come?
Rob: I’m optimistic in the sense that there are a lot of guys who are coming home who can be the next Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. We are intelligent and enlightened. We’ve been reading and writing. I believe we can galvanize and take it to the streets.