On Visiting (and Leaving) Prison

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This is a guest post by JCA Member Emily Barter.

I spent a day in prison once. It was sunny but chillingly cold that day, and every guard I met within the white walls was utterly humorless. I lost count of the number of locked doors, gates, and checkpoints I had to pass through.

I was there with my father to visit a client. I'd been helping out as a legal assistant that summer, filing and proofreading so my father could focus on lawyering, and I was asked along on the prison visit to take notes. I was only inside for a couple of hours, but I sure was relieved to get out. I am both privileged and lucky that I've never been to prison on my own account. When I walked out the final set of prison doors that day, I got to leave the whole experience behind me.

If you're convicted of a crime, though, walking out the prison doors is not a full release. You don't get  complete freedom. Instead, you get collateral consequences. Management companies might deny all your rental applications, and potential employers might never call you back after a promising interview. Another collateral consequence, for people convicted of felonies, is that you can be denied the right to vote.

If you're convicted of a felony in Minnesota, you don't get your voting rights back until you've served your complete sentence. This sentence can include prison time, but it also includes the time you spend rebuilding your life out of prison, while still supervised on probation or parole. At that point, you're part of the day-to-day activities of a family, working or looking for work, paying taxes--normal stuff. But you can't vote.

In 2010 in the state of Minnesota, there were 48,468 of these non-incarcerated people, people living every day in their communities, who were denied the right to vote.

That's a lot of people. It's 1.6% of Minnesota's voting age population. That number already seems huge to me, until I consider that almost 8% of the otherwise-eligible black population is denied the vote. That's 1 out of every 13 otherwise-eligible black Minnesotans.

We could, and should, dig deeper into why such a large percentage of people convicted of felonies are black, but this matter is better examined by experts (see below). Whatever the reasons for all these felony convictions, though, the fact remains that an enormous and disproportionate segment of the black population is barred from voting. The policy of felon disenfranchisement is, in practice, a policy of racial disenfranchisement.

When 8% of the black voting age population cannot vote, our government does not represent its citizens. A disenfranchised black parent can't vote on a levy that would increase funding for their child's school. A majority-black neighborhood can't leverage its full power to oust a local politician who is not serving its interests. Denying community-members the right to vote hurts our public interest and our democratic process. And it slams another door in the face of someone who already walked out of the prison or the courthouse, theoretically released.

It's not exactly true, then, that I left the prison completely behind when I walked away that day. Injustice in the justice system follows you, and it follows me. Let's take it on. We can start by restoring the vote to felony-convicted people who are not incarcerated. There's a bill in the Minnesota legislature now that would do just that, HF342 and SF355. What I've been doing is phonebanking to raise support for this bill. I want you to do two things: (1) click here to find your legislators and let them know you care about restoring the vote and (2) grab a friend and come learn more about the collateral consequences of criminal convictions at JCA's We Are All Criminals event.

If you'd like to know more or discover other, specific ways you can help restore the vote, email Nora Kassner, the JCA's community organizer working on voting rights.


Resources on race and crime:

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Request it from the library here.

Draft Report on Felon Disenfranchisement in Minnesota by Christopher Uggen and Suzy McElrath. This one is 12 easy pages long, and Minnesota-specific, read it here.

Bearing Witness: A Nation in Chains, a report of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. Download here.

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