Photo: Ari Moore

Prison Can Amplify Political Voices

Prison can amplify political voice and COVID-19 deaths begin

Incarcerated people are often blocked from using their political voice to change the laws that impact them. As inmates speak out about COVID-19, we are taking this week to explore their political voice and revisit The Marshall Project’s ground breaking survey: What Do We Really Know About the Politics of People Behind Bars? Inmates now depend on elected people and laws for their release and safety from COVID-19. Did you miss last week’s edition on advocates’ efforts to pressure L.A. officials to act? Read up here.

Last October, we talked to Reuben Jonathan Miller, assistant professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, about political activism and voting among people impacted by the justice system. 

"The fight to re-enfranchise people released from prison has grown"

As bipartisan criminal justice reforms pop up around the country, the fight to re-enfranchise people released from prison has grown. Florida gave voting rights back to people with felonies after a long battle, and Colorado returned the right to vote to parolees. The survey dispelled the assumption that voting right restoration would overwhelmingly support Democrats. But it also showed that politics can be a “lifeline” to those inside. 

The survey found that “respondents with long sentences were more motivated to vote, more likely to change their political views, and more likely to discuss politics than those who had spent less time in prison.” 

To Miller this engagement and even activism starts behind bars through lawsuits against various departments of corrections like grievances but also surrounding issues like prison labor rights, and it extends after release. According to Miller, people who are formerly incarcerated feel a higher expectation of civic engagement.

Image: Ari Moore

“While the rest of the country’s civic participation is declining, the civic participation of this group has been increasing, if anything,” he said. People often use the “rep” of their past experiences to affect change. 

“While other groups who are disaffected by the political system, feel like their voices aren’t heard. This is a group of people who are forcing their voices to be heard. They’re saying, we’ve been excluded. We will not be excluded anymore.”

"We will not be excluded anymore"

Voting rights matter, but often people impacted by incarceration are focused on more direct issues than national candidates. Miller said that expressions of political power often are seen around specific issues such as laws surrounding record expungement, treatment of pregnant women behind bars or the election of an especially punitive judge. 

“These big ticket items matter to them. They do. But there’s also a reality that also matters to them. The reality is that there are forty eight thousand laws, policies and administrative sanctions that target people with criminal records that exclude them from the political, the economy and culture of the cities, suburbs, rural towns and villages that they live in.”

Private facilities: In Colorado, CoreCivic re-entry houses are accused by residents of inadequate responses to calls for social distancing. [The Gazette]

Photos shared by a separate facility's resident shows cramped quarters in late March
Photos shared by a separate facility's resident shows cramped quarters in late March

Warning-Graphic: These photos leaked last month show horrific violence in the Alabama prisons. [WFSA]

Photo: SPLC

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