There’s an Elephant in the Voting Booth.
By: SAPR Media Consultant Yunkyo Kim
In the midst of this controversial election cycle, America’s felon population remains a silent elephant. In our country today, 6.1 million individuals cannot vote due to voter disenfranchisement, but not much is being done to address the issue.
Except for Maine and Vermont, all states prohibit incarcerated individuals from voting. Thirty states automatically restore voting rights only after full sentences are completed. Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming restore felon’s voting rights only with court action. These regulations make voting possible only to some extent. However, lack of legal awareness and stigma can prevent even eligible individuals from voting. Individuals with felony convictions can easily spend years wanting to vote, unaware that their voting rights have been restored. In some restrictive states, there’s an option to submit applications to regain voting rights, but the national underfunding of parole boards leave piles of unread applications. Unfortunately, this oppressive pattern has been embedded in the backdrop of American politics and society.
Voter disenfranchisement goes all the way back to the Pilgrims. People who had committed certain crimes (the prosecution of which, targeted the poor) or didn’t own property could not contribute in the electoral process, limiting the voting pool to a handful of white, male landholders. A century later, during the Reconstruction Era, the southern states enacted disenfranchisement laws to effectively suppress the newly freed African American population. Even today in 2016, we ban individuals from the voting booth on the basis of their status as a felon or incarcerated person in a criminal justice system that is inherently racist, classist, and xenophobic to begin with. Thus, from poor colonists to freed African Americans to the current prison population, voter disenfranchisement has been a front for discrimination on a national level.
For a country that boasts its celebration of freedoms, we are also the world leaders in putting people away. In fact, Americans make up 5% of the world’s population, but are 25% of the world’s incarcerated people. With our current system more concerned with retribution than rehabilitation, incarcerated individuals are oftentimes subject to indifferent and even harmful policies with little representation to push for positive change. It is estimated that 63% of individuals within our criminal justice system meet the criteria to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder, and yet only 11% receive treatment within our criminal justice system. What’s more, in addition to the added psychological and emotional strain of an incarceration, many individuals living with a mental illness go without the support and services necessary for their success as restored citizens. Once released, incarcerated peoples often receive insufficient community support upon release and struggle to make ends meet as they face the continued discrimination of collateral sanctions, often ending up back in jail. The government maintains these efforts at the taxpayers’ expense, spending more than 80 billion dollars per year on incarceration. Our system spends an average of over $31,000 per inmate per year, and yet, the real price of incarceration appears to be the effects of its ineffective and oftentimes unjust policies, on individuals, families, and communities. It is engineered to fail all Americans. We all know it, but it has already become the norm.
We, as Americans, have tremendous pride in our value of equality, fairness, justice, and democracy. Nonetheless, the stigma of incarceration, and our system’s further marginalization of those most affected by it, can make it easy to sometimes look away or justify situations that violate these values. In recent years, however, we are just starting to realize that the underlying issues have expansive effects in our nation as a whole. We need to start a national conversation and we need Millennials to lead our movement.
Millennials are our near future.They are also the direct recipients of the damages we have incurred within our prison system. Fortunately, they are beginning to understand the importance and the necessity of reform. This election season, two leaders in the push for millennial reform, the Student Alliance for Prison Reform and Strong Returns, have come together with a Millennial Reform Agenda to highlight the importance of prison reform. The Agenda encompasses all phases of the criminal justice system - from ending the over-criminalization that fuels mass incarceration to taking steps that ensure successful re-entry. The agenda provides important, accessible information on the challenges facing our justice system today, and while this tool alone acts as an invaluable resource for education, with your action today, it could change lives.
With elections coming up in just a few days, and we need to pull out every possible support. We need to get Millennials to vote for candidates whose goals align with our agenda. We need politicians, judges, prosecutors, activists, organizers, think-tanks, journalists, academics~and voters like you. We need you to vote for supportive candidates who will push for prison reform when they step into office. We cannot wait four more years to get another chance for change.
On the national, state, and local level, our upcoming governmental administration needs to prioritize prison reform, and this starts in November. They can begin by giving the felon population a voice.
For the moment, there is one way for eligible voters to help: vote for the candidate who supports voting rights and prison reform.
Visit http://www.millennialprisonreform.org for more information.
Tonight, the OSU SAPR chapter, supported by the ACLU of Ohio, the Campaign for Youth Justice, and the Ohio Student Association, will be holding a demonstration on the sidewalks of the east plaza of the Ohio Union from 6-8 pm to take a stand against the unnecessary shackling of youth in Ohio. During the demonstration, activists wearing glow-bracelets will stand with their wrists together in solidarity with the Ohio youth who have been adversely affected by indiscriminate, unjustified shackling. Students will also distribute further information about shackling in Ohio, as well as possible alternatives, and will distribute an ACLU of Ohio link to send a pre-written letter to our Ohio Supreme Court, advocating that the current policy be changed.
SAPR chapters wrapped up the 7x9 campaign against juvenile solitary confinement this past week, with Princeton hosting the last demonstration from 7 pm Thursday to 6 pm Friday evening. In all, 7x9 made an appearance on a dozen college campuses across the U.S., reaching thousands of students. The next step is to collect the hundreds of physical signatures obtained by SAPR chapters throughout the month and add them to the petition to end juvenile solitary, which you can sign here. Help us break the silence.
This past week, SAPR chapters across the U.S. organized performance art demonstrations on their campuses to kick off the 7x9 campaign against the use of solitary confinement for juveniles.
Through 7x9, SAPR has accumulated thousands of signatures for a petition to end juvenile solitary, which will be taken directly to the White House. Add your name to the petition today to help break the silence and stop this practice: http://www.studentprisonalliance.com/take-action.html
A day into our week of action and our petition has over 10,000 signatures! Please fill out this brief survey and tell us why you are passionate about ending youth solitary! https://www.aclu.org/secure/sapr-survey
Our petition has over 10,000 signatures and has been featured in The Hill! Check it out here:
Our week of action starts tomorrow and all of our chapters are excited to educate their campuses about the prison system. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Suffolk, Haverford, University of North Carolina, Princeton, Boston University, and UW-Madison will be mobilizing their campuses to help end solitary confinement. We start tomorrow with signature collections at Haverford and Suffolk and more events later this week!
My name is Kelly. I’m a student at Suffolk University, and a passionate activist at the Student Alliance for Prison Reform (SAPR), a nationwide network of university students working for prison reform.
When I was a teenager I spent 7 months in prison. For the first time I was able to personally experience the failings of our criminal justice system. In disbelief I watched as wardens locked up young people in solitary confinement for hours, days, even weeks.
One young woman I met, who had spent 60 days in solitary, described it as torture. How can we let our youth endure this kind of torture?
I’m a student, daughter, friend, former prisoner, and an advocate - and I’m writing you today to urge you to join me in our campaign to end the barbaric practice of juvenile solitary.
Will you sign our petition to the Attorney General calling for an end to the solitary confinement of youth?
While I was serving my sentence, there were times it felt unbearable. When I think about solitary confinement now, I’m still angry. Even for those of us who were in the general population, everything that makes you a person is stripped away until you are entirely alone.
In solitary confinement, the experience of complete isolation can be physically harmful and psychologically damaging – especially for youth.
That’s why I joined forces with the ACLU and SAPR on my campus to work to make sure that no more young people have to undergo this torturous experience, even if they are in prison.
One adult solitary survivor told me, “I can’t imagine how someone under 21 and especially under 18 could mentally handle that without losing it!”
Every day across the country, kids as young as 13 are held in solitary confinement with almost no human contact for days or months at a time.
It’s time to speak up. Solitary confinement is torture, and it should be outlawed for all juveniles.
Don’t let another kid have to face solitary – sign today.
Thank you for taking action,
Kelly McCarron for the Student Alliance for Prison Reform and the ACLU Action team
In partnership with the ACLU, Student Alliance for Prison reform will be petitioning the Attorney General to ban solitary confinement for juveniles. The week of April 6th - April 11th, campus leaders will be mobilizing their campuses to sign the ACLU petition.