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I’m in Prison, and I Need More Than a Vote to Participate in Democracy

Without changing existing power relationships, restoring voting rights for people in prison is meaningless.

Without changing existing power relationships, restoring voting rights for people in prison is meaningless.

Part of the Series

I am well aware that, for years, activists have engaged in political and ideological disagreements about how far the new suffrage movement should go in fighting for the voting rights of people with felony convictions. I’ve been in prison for 25 years, following all the ups and downs. However, it is time to bring some hard-headed realism to bear on this longstanding contradiction in U.S. democracy.

Let’s take a mental leap: Even if politicians eventually conclude that no one of voting age in the U.S. can ever be denied the opportunity to vote — a radical proposition — ordering incarcerated people’s names to be placed on voting rolls would be more symbolic than anything else.

Indeed, bringing a ballot to the cell of someone who is incarcerated would add a veneer of progress to the debate over civil involvement for people with felony convictions, but we must ask ourselves whether that constitutes real progress. The U.S. has demonstrated that it is quite capable of extending “democracy” into almost any field without altering its fundamental structure of hierarchical power relationships.

It’s not difficult to fill multiple libraries with critiques of voting rights, particularly directed at felony disenfranchisement. Criticism rightly grew during Reconstruction (1865-1877) when state after state amended their constitutions to restrict voting eligibility — sometimes permanently — to thwart formal political power of people of color. These criticisms were kept alive during the 20th century as the civil rights movement grew, and later as U.S. incarceration rates skyrocketed to historical numbers. And criticism has grown dramatically in the past few years as an estimated 6.1 million people with felony convictions have begun to receive the increased and sustained attention of a new suffrage movement.

This new suffrage movement emerged with three goals in mind, (1) To make it easier for individuals convicted of a felony to regain the vote after they complete probation or parole; (2) To follow the lead of the 14 states that immediately restore voting rights upon release from incarceration; and (3) To ultimately allow individuals to vote from prison. While these goals are valuable, we cannot think of them as ends in themselves. It is time to get real about the limits of voting if we wish to determine the substance and meaning of democracy.

Real democracy is the broadening of the scope of human agency and human capacity to equally participate in controlling the destiny of the country and everything in it.

We tend to forget — or, maybe, most people are simply unaware — that under law, incarcerated men and women are civilly dead. In the vernacular, incarcerated men and women are “state property.” Incarceration disrupts and defiles qualities that attest a person has human agency, the very hallmark of democracy. It disrupts and defiles self-determination, autonomy and freedom of action.

For example, I have to request permission to briefly talk on the phone, to read certain newspapers, to mail letters, to take a five-minute shower, to see family and friends, to shave, to go outside for very short periods at a time, to use the bathroom, and so forth. Does anyone really believe that bringing me a ballot will permit me to equally participate in controlling the destiny of the country and everything in it when I am forced into a submissive and supplicant role unnatural for an adult? We need a more realistic perspective.

Incarceration is a purely totalitarian system where all aspects of life are conducted in close quarters under a single authority; where every activity is imposed from above; where ideas are heavily censored; where everyone is herded and required to do the same thing at the same time — and where everyone better do exactly what they are told, because degrading consequences more severe than anything encountered in the “free world” are routine.

Merely granting us the vote would not be sufficient, if the goal is to allow us to participate in democracy.

Felony disenfranchisement is not the root threat. We must also grapple with white supremacy, greed and privilege, which have been enshrined over hundreds of years in corporations and institutions, which cannot be voted out of their positions of power by the public at large because the base of their power lies outside of the formal political sphere.

This is not a call to abandon the fight to abolish felony disenfranchisement. Instead, it is a call to simultaneously change existing power relationships. History shows that groups denied the vote can obtain it and effective power still remains in the hands of the major owners, managers and directors of the giant corporations, banks and foundations that dominate the economy and society as a whole.

In the lead-up to the civil rights era, many Blacks believed that if they could vote it would lead to equality and self-determination, but this has not proved to be the case. Even after receiving the vote, in places where Blacks constituted clear voting majorities, political power was usurped by existing power relationships. This was done openly and blatantly, without even the courtesy of a shame-faced renunciation of the principles of democracy (principles upon which the country was supposedly founded).

The suffrage movement has worked hard to restore felony voting rights, and progress has been made. Yet disenfranchisement continues, and will continue, under a myriad of guises. That’s because laws and policies stem not from participatory, inclusive, need-meeting thinking, but from the necessities of capitalism and white supremacy, and their political manifestations. Unless existing power relationships are changed, more laws on the books will do little to broaden the scope of human agency and human capacity. Even those robust efforts applauded and hailed as successful will produce no more than short-lived triumphs that slide into irrelevance as efforts to limit official political power adapt in ways that maintain the status quo.

We should not strive only to abolish felony disenfranchisement, but also to end the social structure that permits it. The social structure that works to silence millions of people. The social structure that sentences youth to life in prison. That targets people of color. That rationalizes state-sanctioned murder (the death penalty). That centers justice on profit and punishment. For only if the total structure is changed can the possibility of genuine democracy be realized. Therefore, the true abolition of disenfranchisement would not be the elimination of something, but rather the foundation of genuine democracy.

People who believe in democracy should not be satisfied with the empty symbols generated by a social structure in which it makes sense to cage people for part or all of their lives. I cannot say exactly what social structure should replace the status quo. That new democracy will come in a form we cannot yet see, because right now the current system, which masquerades as a democracy, is in the way. Our current system limits our ability to see beyond it, limits our ability to find each other, and limits our ability to access the possibilities that lie outside of it.

Here, there is a role for the new suffrage movement, in addition to its goal of gaining the vote. It is necessary to devise transitional programs to agitate, educate and generate new ideas until such time as conditions develop that will make a genuine democracy possible. These programs must be aimed at finding more effective ways to challenge existing power relationships and promote change through social justice education.

As we pursue voting rights, we must also pursue this type of broad social justice education, aimed at enabling all of society to develop the critical analytical tools necessary to understand power relationships, and our acceptance of them as legitimate and inevitable. This educational work — a type of enfranchisement — would help us interrupt and change behaviors within ourselves and in institutions that perpetuate the status quo.

As the new suffrage movement builds and more people learn about felony disenfranchisement, this is a great time to be fighting for broader social justice. It’s an important time to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about voting — and to point out how incarceration is antithetical to having a voice in democracy. And it’s an important time to contribute to practices that will have potent and sustained impacts for justice, fairness and equality — to grow democracy beyond the vote.

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