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Senator Bernie Sanders recently announced a sweeping plan to allow incarcerated people to vote. According to Business Insider, Sanders said in April that “he supports voting rights for all US citizens, even if they’re ‘terrible people.’” But, is voting really what incarcerated people want? Not likely.

Inmates I associated with during my two-year term in a California prison showed me they saw government as the enemy and believed safety is in numbers and might is right. Inmates’ interest in casting their votes in a system that suppresses them, and which they don’t understand, is a non sequitur.

I experienced the wants and needs that are important to inmates during my incarceration. I see incarcerated people as a composite study in Herman Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s five-tier model of human needs, first published in 1943, is illustrated in pyramid form. From the bottom up, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are physiological (food, water, warmth, rest), safety (security), belongingness and love (intimate relationships, friends), esteem (prestige and feelings of accomplishment), and, self-actualization (achieving full potential, including creative activities). Put more simply, incarcerated people’s hierarchy of needs translate into basic human survival requirements such as decent living conditions, personal safety, rehabilitation, drug counseling, job skill training, and medical, dental, and mental health care. Suffrage rights within their curtilage of confinement satisfy none of their needs to survive and exist humanely while doing time.

As an advocate for humane prison reform, I applaud Senator Sanders’ notion of stepping into the reform movement, but it’s curious that he makes a case that falsely advances inmates’ wants and needs.

The right to vote is not high on inmates’ hierarchy of needs. I squint at Sanders’ shortsightedness that inmates want to cast votes after the system had stripped them of freedom.

Know your population before handing them rights. Most inmates I met had not received education that made the right to vote of interest to them. Outside politics are not discussed in prison. Inside politics are paramount. Sanders’ idea rings true to the ear but falls far from the fulfillment of what inmates would individually experience as prison reform. The senator’s idea amounts to throwing a handful of wood matches at a drowning person—a life preserver would make more sense. Superficial or cosmetic changes to disguise what substantive prison reform means is like putting lipstick on a pig.

A Brief History Lesson

The United States Constitution guarantees citizens’ rights to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment, which was ratified by the states in 1870, provides the right to vote: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Our Constitution clearly discriminates against convicted people. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865 after the Civil War, constitutionally excepted persons convicted of crimes from the protection from slavery through what is known as the exception clause:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. (emphasis added)

It’s a small step from not protecting convicted people from being slaves to taking away their rights to vote, and that step has its different footprint in each state. State-enacted felon disenfranchisement laws currently limit millions of Americans from voting.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act, passed during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, intended to alleviate voting obstructions. The History Learning Site explains it this way:

It outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes as a way of assessing whether anyone was fit or unfit to vote. As far as [President] Johnson was concerned, all you needed to vote was American citizenship and the registration of your name on an electoral list. No form of hindrance to this would be tolerated by the law courts.

The impact of this act was dramatic. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the traditional 13 Southern states had less than 50% of African Americans registered to vote. By 1968, even hard-line Mississippi had 59% of African Americans registered. In the longer term, [history reflects that] far more African Americans were elected into public office. The Act was the boost that the civil rights cause needed to move it swiftly along and Johnson has to take full credit for this. As Martin Luther King had predicted in earlier years, demonstrations served a good purpose but real change would only come through the power of Federal government. Johnson proved this.

An insight can be found in the Federalist No. 10, published in 1787. Written by James Madison to support the ratification of the US Constitution by the original thirteen states, No. 10 illustrates Madison’s understanding that human beings are bent on acting as “factions” that can cause “instability, injustice, and confusion” in public life. Madison defined a political faction in his paper: “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Sound familiar?

The Inmate Vote

Senator Sanders is championing a progressive sound bite for marginalized populations. It is a lipstick-on-a-sow cause to dress up a politicized below-the-radar issue in the prison reform arena. According to the Feel the Bern website, Sanders is proud to represent “one of two states that do not restrict voting rights of anyone convicted of felonies.”

The right to vote is strained in terms of who’s voting rights are protected. As LawInfo correctly notes:

It is illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, national origin or sexual orientation with regard to voting rights. Similarly, you cannot be denied the right to vote if you do not speak English or you do not know how to read or write.

Why are illiterate people in a language minority group a protected class? Why are literate inmates kept from voting? Again, shades of the Thirteenth Amendment’s contempt for convicted people, the exception-clause folk who can be constitutionally enslaved.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) 

Enacted in 2002, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) outlines identification requirements and procedures for the general public’s voting in federal elections. These requirements apply to all fifty states as well as the District of Columbia and outlying US protectorates. If a state accepts any type of federal funding, it must comply with HAVA.

Senator Sanders, I suggest advancing your well-intentioned plan for expanding voter rights via an amendment to HAVA that includes protecting the voting rights of incarcerated people in all federal and state elections. In addition, citizenship schools could be established in state and federal prisons with curriculum for incarcerated people to learn about the system they generally don’t understand or respect. Education inside prison walls builds self-esteem inside inmates—a building block of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’ve seen this dynamic change personally when I taught GED programs to other inmates. The dual purpose of such schools is an uncaptured healing energy incarceration institutions must encourage and grow to ensure rehabilitation.

Such an amendment would end the patchwork policies on voting. Why should two states afford voting rights to incarcerated people while other extreme states never reinstate their formerly incarcerated people’s rights to ever vote again? We must balance the vote in this country.

Rehabilitation should be the primary goal. Our captive populations are in perfect environments to be educated to be informed voters.

Please share your thoughts on this topic.

Image courtesy of 123rf.com

2 Responses to Inmates’ Rights to Vote: Lipstick on a Pig

  • I think inmates having voting rights would be quite helpful!
    As I see it, politicians court blocks of voters in the hopes of getting elected/re elected.
    Automatically, upon receiving the right to vote, inmates, because of their large numbers, will have power. It is a short learning curve. Power creates change and the basics of life would improve rather quickly as political figures court their vote.

    • Sandra, I agree with you in principle about the power of large numbers of voters. However, incarcerated people would be difficult to organize in terms of being a coordinated block of meaningful voters when their wants and needs are much more primitive – basic survival needs like an extra rasher of bacon and understanding dangerous race/gang faction politics. Inmates’ concerted power is derived from hard-fought lawsuits, activist groups’ that give voice to 2.2 million incarcerated people, and the power behind the press – when it so chooses.

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