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 of those communities is again 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 especially true because, once convicted, their imprisonment further marginalizes them from society. In Illinois, where I’m incarcerated, everyone in prison is completely stripped of their right to vote until release. (For the thousands of people sentenced to die in Illinois prisons, this is a lifetime denial of the right to vote.)

As someone who has been sitting in prison for the last two decades, I know the full effects of being disenfranchised. It leaves us vulnerable to a voting public that has almost zero concern for our welfare, and deprives us of both a voice in society and what could be a powerful tool to facilitate our return to useful citizenship.

Fortunately, the organization Chicago Votes has been working to pass Senate Bill 828 in partnership with State Representative Lashawn Ford. If passed, this bill will restore voting rights to the roughly 30,000 individuals incarcerated in Illinois prisons, 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. Now, the bill is poised to move during the fall veto session, which would make Illinois the first state in the United States to restore voting rights to people in prison.

Those of us in prison are severely affected by our inability to vote. First, judges in Illinois are 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. Those judges never had to worry about the victims of those harsh sentences voting against them in the next election, because prisoners do not have the right to vote.

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 is true whether they were a constituent prior to incarceration or whether the prison is in their district. 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.

Thus, for numerous reasons the disenfranchisement of people in prison helps to ensure that they serve more time in prison. This does not serve any true penological or public safety goal. Rather, it largely just serves to benefit the personal political careers of judges and legislators, many of whom have already retired. Therefore, those in prison have a serious liberty interest in obtaining the right to 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 to get legislation passed that is beneficial to prison guards, but detrimental to those of us in prison. This has negatively affected everything from our right to access public records, to our ability to peacefully protest inhumane living conditions via hunger strikes.

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 also largely prohibited from earning a living wage, and are often forced to work for pennies per day with no days off for months on end in unsafe working 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 with families and friends out in free society that we care deeply about. I myself am a son, father and grandfather. 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. Moreover, I have the time to get a real understanding of the issues and not just vote along party lines or for someone who spouts the best misleading rhetoric.

People in prison also have a ton of experiential knowledge that can be used to help heal societal 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. For many people who come to prison, this makes us acutely aware of the injustices other people suffer and allows us to relate with empathy.

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.

Denying someone the right to vote is an extremely dehumanizing act. 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.

The right to vote should be available to everyone, incarcerated or not.