The ex-prisoner’s dilemma

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Mike Clemente, 26, has been on probation for eight years. This election season, he is registered to vote for the first time, along with 200 other ex-offenders in New Haven, who were unaware they had this right.

Clemente filled out his registration form at the New Haven Probation Office, a small room situated on the second floor of a nondescript building on State Street, beside a Dunkin’ Donuts. The office consists of one two-way mirror, three brick walls and a semi-circle of plastic chairs, positioned for periods of waiting. This past Tuesday, Clemente walked through the lobby’s metal detector and up to the office for a routine meeting with his probation officer but was greeted instead by Melissa Lavoie ’12, who had stationed herself on one side of a folding table, armed with a box of pens and a stack of registration cards.

Lavoie had set up the stand as a representative of “Unlock the Vote,” the New Haven Re-Entry Initiative’s campaign to register former prisoners in the city. This was the program’s third drive in as many weeks.

By the end of the day, Lavoie had registered 53 former convicts: white, African American and Hispanic individuals — men and women. They wore Yankee hats and Patriots jackets, chains and necklaces, leather jackets and jeans. Some had dreads, others shaved heads.

Clemente said that he’d been on probation so many years that he assumed he couldn’t vote. Many of the other ex-prisoners who registered expressed similar sentiments.

To city officials such as New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman, registration is a vital step in prisoner re-entry and reintegration in the city. Esserman said that he’s a “believer in punishment,” but also in the restoration of individuals’ rights once that punishment is over.

“In the constitution, cruel and unusual punishment has been interpreted as an indefinite sentence,” said Esserman. “In my view, taking away someone’s right to vote is equal to giving them an indefinite sentence.”

STATE BY STATE

Disenfranchisement laws about prisoner’s rights vary from state to state. It was not until 2001, under legislation signed by then-Governor John Rowland, that the vote was extended to former felons on probation in Connecticut. As the law stands today, the only ex-felons that are barred from voting are those who are currently serving a sentence, those who are on parole and, aptly, those who have been convicted of election fraud. As soon as someone is released from prison on probation, she may register to vote in the next election, and those who are currently in jail but awaiting trial are eligible to vote by absentee ballot.

According to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for changes in incarceration policies, Connecticut is one of only 19 states that allows individuals on probation to vote. Only in Maine and Vermont are inmates granted the right to vote, and laws in four states — Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia — enforce permanent disenfranchisement for all individuals who have been convicted of felonies. Reform of felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States began approximately 30 years ago, when changes in the criminal justice system caused legislators to reconsider their positions on systems of correction. Since the new millenium, all amendments to disenfranchisement laws have served to give more voting rights to ex-offenders.

“GET YOU GOING SOMEWHERE”

As a child, Nia Holston ’14 recalls going with her parents to the local voting station and helping them select the names on their ballots. Since she has come of voting age herself, Holston has voted in every single primary.

“I recognize the problems in the system, but I want to work within that system,” said Holston, who is now an active volunteer for Unlock the Vote. “The two-party system is imperfect, the right to vote is imperfect — but I recognize the history of people who have fought for the right to vote.”

Holston’s experience at Yale has left her both dismayed and impassioned by the state of the local voting population. On one hand, she expressed dissatisfaction with voter apathy among Yale students, some of whom seem to take their right to vote for granted. On the other, she sees ex-offenders as people who actively want to participate in the process but don’t necessarily believe they have the right to due to “consistent marginalization.”

Since 2001, little has been done to inform the previously incarcerated of their voting eligibility, despite agreement among city officials and re-entry workers that civil engagement is among the most effective ways to become reintegrated into society. Through work as an intern for the New Haven Re-Entry Initiative, Lavoie noticed that mainstream voter registration efforts tend to avoid the ex-offender population, likely out of fear of political backlash, she said.

Holston said that voting is a simple but vital step in encouraging former felons to become engaged in the community, but it isn’t everything.

“Registering to vote isn’t necessarily going to get you a job, it’s not going to feed your family… But I think it’s a step to get you going somewhere,” she said.

INVISIBLE BARS TO VOTING

Before the Unlock the Vote campaign, few efforts had been made to engage with ex-offender registration. At the drive at the probation office this past Tuesday, many people who lined up to register were surprised to learn that they could vote at all.

This misconception is one that has been propagated by the very people that former convicts are taught to trust, such as correctional officers and jail staff, according to Holston and ex-offenders who registered through Unlock the Vote.

Over the summer, Holston worked at a public defender group in New York City. Her role involved going to local prisons to register detainees. The atmosphere at the jail, she said, was less than conducive to their cause. When she and her colleagues arrived at the jail, the guards made a muffled announcement over the P.A. system. The detainees who ventured into the registration room were extremely timid, and they informed Holston that their correctional officers had followed their hurried announcement of the drive with the claim, “You can’t vote anyway.”

Although Lavoie and Holston both contend that the development of the campaign has been relatively smooth, they admit that they have met opposition from those who are altogether against the notion of convicted felons being eligible to vote.

“There are people who believe that criminals lose their status as citizens forever,” said Esserman. “They believe that one forfeits that right one commits a crime.”

At her office in City Hall, Lavoie devotes one wall of her room to well-known figures who have served time in prison. Among these are Nelson Mandela, Martha Stewart and Mark Wahlberg. “I feel a little weird about having Nelson Mandela in the same place as these Hollywood personalities,” Lavoie admitted. But the wall display illustrates a simple point: Regardless of where a convict comes from or the nature of his offences, a jail sentence should not signify a permanent withdrawal from society.

RATE OF RETURN

“Although conclusive studies on the subject do not yet exist, there is some evidence that the recidivism, or ‘return-to-prison,’ rates for released prisoners who are given their civil rights back is lower than the rate for those who are not fully integrated back into society,” said Mark Abraham ’04, executive director of DataHaven, a public statistics and information collaborative within the city. Evidence of this correlation can be seen in Florida, where a study conducted by the Florida Parole Commission found that ex-offenders were 22% more likely to return to prison if their right to vote was not restored upon their initial release.

This difference can be crucial in light of Connecticut’s high recidivism rates. According to Abraham, the three year recidivism, rate for the state’s inmates was 43.7% between 2004 and 2007.

SCHOOLS IN CELLS

The failure to successfully reintegrate prisoners is one of the main reasons Arvind Mohan ’14, the co-coordinator for Yale’s prison tutoring program, and about 10 other Yale students travel to Mason Youth Prison every Saturday morning to teach prisoners GED prep.

Tutors not only prepare prisoners to take the GED, but they also discuss current events and help to foster non-GED related academic interests once students pass the exam. The idea is to prepare students for success so once they leave the prison, they leave for good.

“This is the only time on weekends when they get to leave their cell,” Mohan said. “Our goal is to give them the tools for advancement.”

Each week at tutoring, one prisoner consistently arrives before all the others, said Mohan. One day, Mohan finally asked him why he shows up so early. “I just don’t want to come back here after I’m released,” the prisoner said.

TRANSITIONS, ADVANCEMENT

Across the city, organizations are making similar efforts to smooth the transition between incarceration and release. Transitions Clinic, founded by Emily Wang and Clemens Hong, provides health care to chronically ill patients who have recently been released from prison. The clinic is staffed by several ex-offenders, whose own histories of incarceration give them a personal understanding of their patients’ struggles.

Jerry Smart, a Transitions community health worker, experienced firsthand what it means to be released into society after spending a considerable time in prison. Every week, Smart goes to the New Haven police station to meet newly released prisoners who are “coming home.” Many of these individuals have not seen primary care providers since serving their sentences, and many of them do not have adequate health insurance.

“So many of these guys, you know, they’ve been sold dreams. People say to them: I’ll get you a job, I’ll get you an apartment — and a lot of these programs don’t end up helping them. But we can guarantee that they’re going to see a doctor,” he said.

At the Transitions Clinic, Smart has found a niche. He was employed through the Re-Entry Program, and he, too, had not been registered to vote until the launch of the Unlock the Vote campaign.

Joseph Onofrio, who was also registered through Unlock the Vote, said that he had felt isolated from the civic process while in jail. “When you’re in prison,” he said, “they don’t tell you that you’re allowed to vote. The correctional officers, the jail staff, the counselors — they tell you you’re not allowed to. I don’t know if they’re even aware of [the laws].”

“A lot of people come home, and they don’t feel like they have any rights,” Smart agreed. “The attitude is that society doesn’t really care about them. What [Lavoie] is doing is very powerful.”

STATE AND NATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

As election day nears, Connecticut has become a battleground with the hotly contested senatorial race between Democratic nominee and U.S representative, Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon.

“This race is one of the three most important races in the country, hands down,” Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04 said, “[The race is] more important for the nation than Connecticut has seen in a long time.”

According to Real Clear Politics, a website that averages polls from across the country, 46 seats are likely to be Democrat, 43 are likely to be Republican and 11 states’, including Connecticut’s, seats are still “toss-ups.” Connecticut is one of the states up for grabs, according to the website, but Murphy has an approximately 3 percentage point lead over McMahon, at press time.

The race is so tight that both Hausladen and political science Professor Kelly Rader agree that Unlock the Vote may could be crucial to this election. Ordinarily, voter registration efforts do not gain enough voters to affect the outcome of an election, Rader, said. But, according to Hausladen: “This election could be decided by as few as a hundred votes.” Over the course of the campaign, Unlock the Vote has already registered over 200 people.

Historically, roughly 85-90 percent of African-Americans vote for the Democrat in the presidential election, and ex-convicts are more likely than the general population to be African-American, Rader said. Since people assume ex-convicts are more likely to vote for the Democratic party, the Unlock the Vote campaign has received criticism for having a partisan agenda.

“People assume that this is a partisan campaign. After an article was published in the New Haven Register following the launch of the initiative, there was backlash from [online] commenters,” Lavoie said. “I think one person said, ‘Look how low the Democrats will stoop.’”

At a meeting of the Democratic Town Committee for which Holston chairs a subcommittee on ex-offender voting rights, town officials warned her against publicizing Unlock the Vote for fear that it would be attributed to a politically-motivated push on behalf of the Democrats.

Althea Brooks DIV ’01, the coordinator of the New Haven Re-Entry Initiative, said that she had been approached by members of the Chris Murphy campaign who hoped to collaborate on Unlock the Vote. But she denied the request, emphasizing the need for the project to remain nonpartisan if it wants to achieve its goal of reaching out to as many ex-offenders as possible. Meanwhile, Chairman of the New Haven Republicans H. Richter Elser ’81 said that he was not aware of Unlock the Vote.

At the probation office, political affiliations were varied. Some ex-offenders expressed their approval of President Obama, while others criticized him, and still others didn’t name a preferred candidate.

Nationally, voter registration is low historically and compared to other countries, Caleb Kleppner ‘89, a green party member running for voter registrar in New Haven, said. “This is a vital sign… our democracy isn’t as healthy as it should be,” he added. Kleppner said ex-offenders have particularly low voter turnout, which may be attributed to the fact that ex-offenders do not feel represented in government.

“Think of the 435 members of Congress,” he said, “I’m not sure many of them prioritize looking out for the issues of interest to ex-offenders.”

Voter ID laws, such as one recently passed in Texas that requires residents to have a license to vote, may be part of the reason for the decreased number of registered voters this election cycle, Zak Newman, president of the Yale College Democrats said.

Newman, who is from Texas, said that his mother had to spend 10 hours and take two trips to the DMV to get her license. Rader, looking back for years, said she thinks fewer people are registered to vote in this election because enthusiasm is not as high as it was in 2008, which she said was an outlier in terms of the number of people registered.

H. SIMPSON FOR PREZ

Regardless of Unlock the Vote’s specific effect on elections or national trends, both Rader and Newman agree that ensuring ex-offenders can vote is objectively important. “This isn’t about trying to win the election, it’s about giving these people their fair chance,” Newman said. “They’ve paid their debt to society and they need to be reintegrated… and see government and elected officials as people and institutions that can help.”

At the first drive held by Unlock the Vote, Lavoie vocalized the importance of voting for ex-offenders of all political stripes. “This country has a history of going up to certain groups and saying to them, ‘Vote for this person,’” Holston said. “We don’t want to be a part of that history. So on the first day, Melissa stood up and told the people in the room, ‘You can vote for Homer Simpson for all I care.’”

A HISTORY LESSON

“No taxation without representation” may have seemed a self-explanatory slogan in 1775, but Americans would spend the next 237 years defining what representation means. When the constitution was drafted, the only “represented” demographic consisted of white male property owners. Radically, in 1870, the Voting Rights Act extended suffrage to adult male citizens of any race including African Americans, but it wouldn’t be until 1920 that women could participate in the electoral process.

Along the path to democratic parity, there have been many rocky legal impediments. Connecticut passed the nation’s first literacy test in 1855, an attempt to block immigrants and the uneducated poor from the ballot box. Other states implemented poll taxes in late 1889. Mississippi dreamed up the grandfather clause, further blocking African Americans whose ancestors didn’t have the vote before 1870, from casting ballots. It was not until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act eliminated the literacy test. Decades later, in 2001, Connecticut extended voting rights to those on probation, but as history teaches, removing legal barriers is only the first step in the voting process. Many other concerns play a part in fully opening up civic and political engagement.

NOVEMBER 6TH AND THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE

At the New Haven Re-Entry Initiative’s office in City Hall, ex-offenders come in and out to talk to Brooks and Lavoie about their plans to find jobs, to secure living arrangements, to get re-acquainted with communities from which they had been removed for years. And although they have all registered to vote, it is clear that the question of voting is a small one compared to the challenges they face on a daily basis. On Nov. 6, they will make a choice between spending time on these everyday struggles and going to the voting stations.

“Residents making less than $35,000 a year are much less likely to vote, be registered to vote or to participate in other civic activities like attending public meetings,” Abraham noted. “Many ex-offenders most likely fall into that income category — this indicates that the barriers to participating in civic life extend beyond the issue of incarceration.”

Ex-offenders may have peeled off their orange jumpsuits and removed their handcuffs for good, but the implications of their sentences are less easy to escape. There is no single key to freeing them from the difficulties they will face, though the doors to their cells may be open.

Comments

  • DMerrill

    To the authors: Thank you for this timely article – it helps everyone understand one of the real problems surrounding re-connection with civic life faced by so many ex-offenders. I have worked with organizations such as this one, but it is difficult to put a human face on the problem. You have advanced the issue.
    good job! Denise Merrill, Secretary of the State of CT

  • PrisonPath

    I am the founder of PrisonPath.com, a new resource for families of inmates and new inmates. I created an infographic discussing the inequalities of Prisoner Voting Rights which can be found here: http://www.prisonpath.com/felons-have-the-right-to-vote-infographic

    I wanted to make an infographic of the issue to paint a clearer picture. If you find it interesting I would appreciate it if you would share it with your readers.

    Regards,

    Bradley Schwartz
    info@prisonpath.com

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