I sat and watched in disbelief as the numbers rolled across the bottom of the dayroom tv. It was a late night in November 2016, and the guard on duty that night let me stay up late to watch the presidential race results. The other inmates in my dorm slept so soundly around me as if it was just another day in prison. Donald Trump’s numbers rose as my spirits fell, and then all too quickly, it was over. We had a new president and four years of uncertainty ahead of us. The next morning, I told everyone the results and was met with apathy. I heard the same comment a dozen different ways. “What does it matter? We can’t vote anyways so whatever happens is gonna just happen.”
In the U.S., there are about 6 million citizens who are not allowed to vote in any elections due to a felony conviction. Approximately half of those have completely finished serving their whole sentence, a quarter are free but still on parole, and another quarter are still incarcerated. There are an additional 470,000 citizens who are in city or county jails still awaiting trial and, as of yet, not convicted of any crime. They are still technically allowed to vote, but are unable to do so for the most part due to logistics or red tape. They are all American citizens with no voice in our political system. These same people are counted in the census as residents of whatever region they are housed in, but have absolutely no say in who gets elected to such positions as judges, prosecutors, or sheriffs, among other positions. Who better to see how they carry out their jobs than those who most directly deal with them?
I find the attitude of my fellow prisoners to be the same as many of the people who I have talked to in the free world. “They are going to do whatever they want to do, no matter what I think anyway.” Many on this side of the walls don’t care because they can’t vote, and many on the other side of the walls don’t vote because they don’t care. Like out there, many of the people in here feel forgotten and unheard, and so have lost hope.
When I leave this place in what is hopefully not too many more years, I will be expected to contribute and become a party of society once again. I will be expected to follow all the rules set upon me by a system that doesn’t care what I say. I will be expected to pay taxes which will be spent on things I have no part in deciding. Until I complete an additional period of mandatory supervision known as parole, I will still just be a number with no voice.
In our state, people with a felony conviction lose all rights to vote in all city, county, state, or national elections until they have served out their complete sentence of incarceration and parole, which is often years after their actual release from prison. Texas is just one of 21 states with these same restrictions. In the District of Columbia as well as 14 other states, felons are allowed to vote once they are released from prison, even if still on parole. In 13 other states, voting rights are permanently taken away once convicted of a felony. In two states however, Maine and Vermont, citizens never lose that right, even while incarcerated.
When I look around me at the population of this one prison where I am held, I see a majority of minorities. The people here are mostly black, then Hispanic, and a low percentage of whites. I have looked at the numbers and noticed that officially, there are many more whites reported on paper than are actually represented by the people here. I realized this is because on many forms, Hispanics are classified as white. I am Mexican/Native American, but classified as white by TDCJ on many forms. While there are there main races here, economically, we are almost all the same. We are all poor or lower middle class. I have never met a rich or upper class inmate of any race.
The battle for restoration of voting rights for felons falls firmly along partisan lines. Republicans strongly oppose felons ever being able to vote while Democrats fight for voting rights for all. To me, the reasons are pretty clear. If they could, most people caught up in this criminal justice system would vote liberally, hoping for change. The justice system we are a part of is clearly broken. Many are serving extremely long sentences for crimes that pale in comparison to the crimes wealthy people get pardons for. People spend years upon years of their lives here behind these walls while people in suits get sentenced to months, and then get released early. We clearly see the need for change, for more equal justice, but have been stripped of our only method of affecting that change. The brutality we all have seen lately against protesters out there now is nothing compared to the brutality that is shown us behind these bars when we dare protest against anything. It has been this way for years.
This election cycle, I am still as interested and involved as I can be from this cage I live in. I keep informed by listening to “The Prison Show” (Fridays @ 9pm, KRPR), “Houston Matter” (9am, NPR), “The Texas Standard” (10am, NPR), and other news shows. I read every newspaper I can get my hands on, and publications like Prison Legal News. We have been locked completely down due to covid, so we are not allowed television news, and our phone calls are limited to one 5-10 minute call per day, depending on our level of quarantine. So I can only be a bystander to this election with no way to do anything about it or even give my opinion, for the most part. This article is my only voice and I am thankful for that opportunity.
This election promises to be another historical one with so many important and controversial issues to be discussed, debated, and decided. I can only hope that restoration of voting rights and prison reform are some of those issues. Our state prisons are bursting at the seams and it won’t be long before everyone has a loved one serving time alongside me. Our country already has more of its citizens incarcerated per capita than any other country in the world, including China, Russia, and North Korea. The land of the free is not as free as we are led to believe. Votes are the only thing that will change that. Please don’t throw yours away. I will add mine to yours as soon as I am allowed to and together, maybe we can change things.
Till then, stay informed, stay active, and shout, don’t just speak, your voice out!