The Right to Vote Should Be Available to Everyone — Including Prisoners Like Me

People in prison often begin their life in marginalized communities where their families’ right to vote has historically been suppressed. Today, voter suppression in these communities is on the rise. The fact that people are actively trying to legislate additional hindrances to already marginalized communities’ right to vote highlights the need to ensure the right to vote for all of these communities’ members — even if they are in prison.

This is because once they are convicted, their imprisonment further marginalizes the individual from society. In Illinois, where I’m incarcerated, everyone in prison is completely stripped of their right to vote until release. This is a lifetime denial of voting rights for the thousands of Illinois prisoners who are sentenced to death in Illinois prisons.

I have been in prison for over 20 years and know all too well the effects of being disenfranchised. It makes us vulnerable to a voting population that almost has no concern for our welfare and takes away our ability to have a voice in society as well as a powerful tool to help us return to useful citizenship.

Chicago Votes, in partnership with Lashawn Ford, has been working to pass Senate Bill 8.28. If this bill is passed, it will restore voting rights to approximately 30,000 Illinois prison inmates, including me. After nearly passing in the final days of the 2021 regular legislative session with 64 “yes” commitments in the House of Representatives, confusion over the bill’s constitutionality stalled its passage. Since then, Chicago Votes and advocates have worked to address misbeliefs around the bill’s constitutionality. The bill is now poised to move during fall veto, making Illinois the first state in America to restore voting rights for people in prison.

Our inability to vote affects those of us in prison. First, Illinois judges get elected. For decades, getting elected required promising to be, or proving they were, “tough-on-crime” — meaning they would, or were, handing out overly harsh prison sentences. Because prisoners are not allowed to vote, judges didn’t have to worry about their victims voting against them in the next election.

This continues today and affects all of one’s appeals and resentencing hearings. Moreover, the inability to vote means we can’t vote for fair-minded judges who will protect our rights in civil court, nor vote against judges who openly discriminate against petitions filed by people in prison.

Second, most legislators don’t view anyone in prison as their constituents simply because they can’t vote. This applies regardless of whether they were their constituents before or after the incarceration. If legislators don’t need to court the votes of people in prison, it ensures they are unlikely to take their concerns or viewpoints into consideration when passing legislation.

That simple fact greatly contributed to the passing of tougher and tougher sentencing guidelines, and also ensures that today’s “reforms” of those extreme sentencing laws won’t help the currently incarcerated.

This is why, for many reasons, people who are disenfranchised in prison help to ensure they spend more time in jail. This is not a penological or public safety goal. It serves little purpose other than to enhance the political careers and personal lives of legislators and judges, many of whom are already retired. In prison, prisoners have a significant liberty interest in obtaining the right vote.

The fact that people in prison can’t vote for state legislators also leaves them extremely vulnerable to abuse by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). Legislators constantly cater to the guards’ union because they are a powerful voting bloc. This allows them the ability to pass legislation that benefits prison guards but is detrimental to us in prison. This has adversely affected everything, from our right of access to public records to our ability peacefully to protest inhumane living conditions via hunger strike.

We are also captive consumers at the “mercy” of monopolistic companies that routinely engage in price-gouging and other anti-competitive business practices — all to the detriment of the incarcerated. Additionally, the IDOC adds unnecessary, and unjust surcharges, or increases prices by demanding kickbacks or “commissions.” This too is at our expense.

Without the right to vote, this is effectively “taxation without representation.” Thus, people confined to the IDOC were not only exploited by yesterday’s “tough-on-crime” politicians and ignored by today’s “reformers,” but are continuously exploited financially throughout our incarceration.

People in prison are generally prohibited from earning a living wage and are often forced into working for pennies per hour for months in unsafe conditions.

Being disenfranchised means we cannot vote for legislators who will look out for our interests — who will pass laws to stop our exploitation, require a living wage for prison labor, ensure we receive adequate medical care, have access to educational programming, and more.

Society has this misconception that people in prison are “anti-social” or hell-bent on destroying society and should therefore not be allowed to vote so they can’t “poison the system.” Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Don’t get me wrong; society’s constant efforts to marginalize, ostracize, oppress and discriminate against the incarcerated definitely doesn’t help engender strong ties to society; but despite all of that, ties to the community usually remain.

That’s because no matter how much society deHumanizes us, we remain just that — human. We are human beings who have families and friends. I am a father, grandfather and son. My right to vote, if restored to me, would be exercised primarily in support of my family’s safety and economic well-being.

My vote for candidates would also probably be much more informed than the average citizen’s, due to the fact that I have the time to research both the candidates and their stances on the issues. I can also get a deep understanding of the issues, not just vote for someone who uses misleading rhetoric or party lines.

People in prison also have a lot of experience that can be used to heal social ills. We not only have firsthand knowledge about injustices embedded in our legal system, but we also have firsthand experience with oppression and being at the “mercy” of unaccountable agents of the state. Many people who go to prison are acutely aware of the injustices that other people face and can relate to them.

This is a significant factor not only in why people personally impacted by mass incarceration are at the forefront of the movement to decarcerate, but also why people who leave prison often get involved in working for nonprofits, become “violence interrupters,” fight against racial discrimination, corruption, and more.

It is very dehumanizing to deny someone their right to vote. Rather than further ostracizing people in prison — the majority of whom will return to their communities someday — society should work to increase people’s attachments to society.

Restoring people’s right to vote while in prison would go a long way toward engendering feelings of belonging to society. This would both make it more likely that the incarcerated would work towards the betterment of society, and increase the likelihood that they will be “returned to useful citizenship,” as our state constitution insinuates should be the goal.

Everybody, regardless of their prison conditions, should have the right to vote.