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70 Million: Voting from Jail is a Right, and Now a Reality in Chicago

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Today, in the lead up to the next general election, many Americans in custody still cannot vote. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the almost 740,000 people in jail, about two-thirds are awaiting court action on a charge. In other words, nearly 500,000 of them may be eligible to vote. A year ago, Illinois passed a law requiring all jails to ensure that pre-trial detainees have an opportunity to vote. In Chicago’s Cook County Jail, the nation’s largest single-site jail,about 95% of detainees are awaiting trial and the vast majority is eligible to vote. The sheriff there is an enthusiastic supporter of expanding their voting program.

Image: By Pamela Kirkland; Image Caption: Talman Anderson votes in the Illinois presidential preference primary from the Cook County Jail

TRANSCRIPT below

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Featuring:

  • Talman Anderson; Voter at Cook County Jail
  • Miriam Tello; Voter at Cook County Jail
  • Loan Lela; Voter at Cook County Jail
  • Sheriff Tom Dart; Sheriff at Cook County Jail
  • Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker; Governor of Illinois
  • Eugene McGraw; Voter at Cook County Jail
  • Amani Sawari; Spokesperson for Right 2 Vote Campaign
  • Kathy Hughes; Voter at Cook County Jail
  • Durrel Douglas; Executive Director of Houston Justice
  • Foster Bates; President of NAACP Chapter from within Maine State Prison
  • Stevie Valles; Executive Director of Chicago Votes  

Credits:

  • Pamela Kirkland – Reporter
  • Mitzi Miller – Host
  • Juleyka Lantigua-Williams – Creator and Executive Producer
  • Phyllis Fletcher and Laura Flynn – Editors
  • Cedric Wilson – Lead Producer and Sound Designer
  • Virginia Lora – Managing Producer
  • Leslie Datsis – Marketing Lead
  • Laura Tilman – Staff Writer
  • Michelle Baker – Photo Editor
  • Sarah McClure, Ryan Katz – Fact Checker

Making Contact Staff:

  • Staff Producers: Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani
  • Executive Director: Sonya Green
  • Director of Production Initiatives and Distribution: Lisa Rudman
  • Production Assistant: Emily Rose Thorne

Special thanks to Omnia Foundation for supporting our programs on people in prison.

Music Credits:

  • Like the Others (intro) – Jeff Dodson
  • Cosmic Spheres – (No Artist Listed, ALIBI Music Library)
  • Undiscovered Secrets – Derek Whitacre
  • Time Is Running Out – Derek Whitacre
  • Unknown Passengers – Derek Whitacre
  • Moonbathing – (No Artist Listed, ALIBI Music Library)
  • This Is Camille – Jeff Dodson
  • Elemental Power – Derek Whitacre
  • Silent Steps – Derek Whitacre
  • Until The Next Time (credits) – Derek Whitacre

TRANSCRIPT

Salima – I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s Making Contact we bring you a piece from our friends at 70 million, about voting from prison. Did you know that those awaiting trial have the right to vote? But how do you exercise your right to vote if you’re incarcerated? Well, one solution is to set up polling places inside jails and prisons. Here’s host Mitzi Miller from 70 million, with their story about the polling place inside Chicago’s cook county jail.

 

Miller: In 1974 the Court upheld the right to vote for people convicted of misdemeanors and those in pretrial detention​— asserting protection under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Today, in the lead up to the next general election, many Americans in custody still cannot vote. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the almost 740,000 people in jail, about two-thirds are awaiting court action on a charge. In other words, nearly 500,000 of them may be eligible to vote. As the country prepares for a historic election, this segment of the incarcerated population underscores how criminal justice and the franchise intersect. We went to Chicago to see for ourselves. A year ago, Illinois passed a law requiring all jails to ensure that pre-trial detainees have an opportunity to vote. In Chicago’s Cook County Jail, the nation’s largest single-site jail,​about 95% of detainees are awaiting trial and the vast majority is eligible to vote. The sheriff there is an enthusiastic supporter of expanding their voting program. Reporter Pamela Kirkland has the story.

(Ambient sound)​

Clapping…”Thanks for voting Mr. Anderson”

Pamela Kirkland: Was this your first time voting?

Talman Anderson: Yes. Yes, it was my first time voting.

Miriam Tello: It was my first time voting too.

Cook County Jail Sergeant: Three coming at you…

Kirkland: It’s a cold, drizzly Chicago day in March. Talman Anderson and Miriam Tello speak to me at the Cook County Jail. It’s their first time voting in an election. And it’s the first time the jail will be an official polling location so people in custody can physically cast a ballot.

Anderson: They say every person’s vote counts, so I just went ahead and just voted.

Kirkland: ​​Anderson, along with about eighteen hundred people held in Cook County Jail, cast his vote in the jail’s chapel, which for the day serves as a makeshift polling place

Sergeant: Gentlemen, take it up the stairs…

Kirkland: Detainees sit in chairs in neat rows along the wall, watching as each person makes their way through a maze of voting equipment and election officials. They’re asked first if they’re registered to vote. Their answer either sends them to a plastic folding table to fill out a voter registration card, or over towards the voting machines to cast their ballot in the Illinois presidential preference primary.

Anderson​: It was a cool experience. If they would have come on the deck and did it, but you wouldn’t have gotten off the deck so it was like a breath of fresh air. Got to do a little moving around. So it was alright.

Kirkland: ​​Miriam Tello cast her vote across the street where the women in custody are held.

Tello: At first, I was a little nervous–like I was walking up. But all the directions were clear. Like they gave me all the information. When I went to the booth, it was all smooth, all their information was clear to read, too.

Kirkland: ​​Many of the people I spoke with that day praised their voting experience, including Ioan Lela.

Ioan Lela: It was smoother than I thought it was going to be. I didn’t think they were going to be organized ‘cause, nothing’s organized here, but it was smooth.

Kirkland: ​​Things ran smoothly inside the Cook County Jail for two weekends in early March, but the journey to bring those voting machines inside was anything but.

Sheriff Tom Dart: I was enthusiastically in favor of it, supporting it and pushing it from day one.

Kirkland: ​​Ever since Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart took office​ in 2006​, he says he’s made expanding voting inside the walls of the jail a top priority. He worked alongside nonprofit Chicago Votes and the Chicago Board of Elections to turn the Cook County Jail into a polling place.

Dart: I thought it was a moral imperative that people who are in custody, particularly none of them have been convicted. Who better to be engaged in their community and their society and you know, fixing their, the ills that may have got them there, identifying the issues in their community there that are lacking that could have made their lives better. I mean I just find the whole notion that people who are involved in the criminal justice system shouldn’t vote is repugnant.

Kirkland: In ​August of 2019​, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law legislation making Cook County Jail Chicago’s newest polling place. SB2090 was a package of bills to expand access to voting and voter education programs in jails and prisons around the state. Pritzker talked about the jail in his remarks at the bill signing that month.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker: “​We’re going to be putting ​a polling place in the Cook County Jail for detainees who are eligible to vote and a vote-by-mail program in every county across the state of Illinois, that’s 102 counties.”

Kirkland: ​​The law requires county jails and election officials across the state to establish systems giving eligible voters, including pretrial detainees, the opportunity to vote. It also requires counties with more than 3 million residents to establish a temporary polling place within a jail. Cook County is the only Illinois County to meet that requirement. Before voting booths moved in in the lead up to the March 17 primary, detainees had been able to vote by mailing in an absentee ballot. ​Eugene McGraw has been awaiting trial in Cook County since 2018 . He says he’s been voting in elections since 2008, even while in custody. He described how the voting process used to work in the jail.

Eugene McGraw: We did a vote maybe last year sometime, but it was like, they brought some sheets of paper in and we just signed them and it was like, it was real, it was real depressing.

Dart: I couldn’t have said it any better. There’s something about physically being with other human beings in that room, in that environment where there’s serious people deciding the direction of their government. And there’s an energy there.

Kirkland: ​​This March, 1850 people were able to vote from the Cook County jail polling location, roughly 40% of detainees. Sheriff Dart says it’s a sharp increase from past elections

Dart: We only had 700 people vote in the March 2016 primary, and at that point in time, we probably had about, I’d say about eight, 8-9,000 people in custody.

Kirkland:​​ Even before the results had come in, civil rights organizations touted the Cook County Jail as a potential model for other correctional facilities to expand access to ​the ballot​ — demonstrating that not only is it possible to bring a polling place into jail, but showing it can be successful. In jails across the United States, many of those in custody are actually eligible to vote, but the process of voting can vary from state to state. In Massachusetts, a detainee can request a ballot to be mailed to the jail without having to register first. In Arizona, county officials must submit a plan showing exactly how people in custody will be able to vote. And earlier this year in Alabama, “incarceration” was added to the list of acceptable reasons for requesting an absentee ballot. Because the registration and ballot process varies based on location, it can create confusion.

Amani Sawari: We need to make sure that we’re not just, saying, “hooray” when a polling booth is created in the jail, but we need to say, “hooray” when people feel fully equipped to use that polling booth.

Kirkland: That’s Amani Sawari. She’s a community organizer in Detroit, Michigan. She’s also a spokesperson for the Right 2 Vote campaign for incarcerated citizens and a well-known prisoners’ rights advocate. Her company, Sawari Media, produces a newsletter called the Right to Vote Report. It reaches tens of thousands of people, by her count, in jails, prisons and detention facilities in more than 30 states.

Sawari: The prison itself and jails, these facilities have a monopoly on what information is distributed in their facilities. They come up with the rules, they get to say what channels can be on the TV, what magazines come in. They approve of everything that is distributed amongst their populations. And so what’s really important about the Right to Vote report is that we are committed to protecting people’s right to be informed.

Kirkland: ​​Voter education options in jail are limited. Before the March primary Sheriff Dart made sure access to public television was available.

Dart: We have a PBS station here in Chicago and they do a service where they let candidates all give like a two minute spiel. I had that played because I wanted candidates to have the ability to reach out to detainees and have it done in a neutral way.

Kirkland: ​​In the Cook County jail, it’s something many of the detainees talked about, including Kathy Hughes and Ioan Lela.

Kathy Hughes: Only way I knew who was on the ballot is through the television. I think that they don’t show enough through the television about the candidates and what they represent or what they stand for.  I think they don’t show enough.

Lela: We go in there blind a lot of times. We don’t know any of the judges. Um, you know, we see some commercials, but we don’t know their credentials. We don’t know their track records or none of that. A lot of brothers actually did mention that they don’t know nothing about these candidates, you know. So, it would be helpful to have some type of brochures or pamphlets and some type of information, some type of research that we could get from the law library or from outside sources on these candidates.

Kirkland: That’s what Sawari hopes to do with the Right 2 Vote report — put more information into the hands of people in custody.

Sawari: We want to make sure that people know what the newest legislation is that impacts them where it is on a federal level and on a state level, particularly around the area of ending felony disenfranchisement. Our role is to measure that people are informed about what’s going to be on the ballot, and if not, what the best method would be of participating, at least making sure that they know whether or not they can participate.

Kirkland: ​​For the November general election, Sawari is partnering with other groups in an effort to reach overlooked voters in jails.​The effort to contact those jails had just gotten underway when I spoke with Sawari. She said the August edition of the Right 2 Vote report would officially launch the vote by mail in jail campaign. Efforts to expand access to voting for people in jail and prison are happening across the country. While Sawari’s work is nationwide, she’s particularly focused on Michigan and issues related to the rights of incarcerated people there.

Sawari: When it comes to the November election, a lot of people are on edge about wanting to see the repeal of Truth in Sentencing on our November ballot.

Kirkland: Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing law requires that a person convicted of a crime serve the minimum sentence attached to that crime — ​without exception​. It’s one of the issues related to imprisoned people that she’s keeping a close eye on. Among organizations like Sawari’s, the focus is mainly on states with harsh criminal justice policies​. But also places where officials running jails and prisons just don’t know how to facilitate an election for people in custody. In Texas, for example, activists found the administrators running the Harris County jail, which holds over 10,000 people, didn’t know how to let their detainees vote.

Durrel Douglas: That’s the size of a town, right? We were shocked to learn how little education was happening inside when it came to voting. And even when it came to staff and like top brass and actually the administrators, like how much work needed to be done to make sure that even they understood kind of what the rules were and what all we needed to do.

Kirkland: Durrel Douglas worked in the Texas Prison System for 5 years. He eventually ascended to the rank of lieutenant. Now, he’s the executive director of Houston Justice, a group focused on coordinating voter registration drives inside ​the​ jail​. Douglas is working with Amani Sawari to continue pushing for expanding voter access in the Harris County jail and ​beyond​.

Douglas: On one hand, we’re reaching out to jail administrators, you know, some in some states, it’s the warden in some states, it’s the, what, it’s the, whoever the sheriff, that’s the top, top cop at the jail. And we’re saying, “Hey, do you guys have a system?” If you do great, we want to help. And in the event that you don’t have one and you don’t want to do it,​​we’re going to reach directly out to the inmates because in every state there’s some kind of workaround.

Kirkland: ​​Douglas decided to focus his outreach on people in custody.

Douglas: So we said, tell you what: Why don’t we start with all the inmates that we communicate with already that are behind bars, but are gonna be behind bars? And how about we start with them as the very first people to sign on, to commit to vote if they’re eligible,” right? And if we start with them, why not ask them? I’m a community organizer. I understand that it’s the grassroots that really makes things grow. Why not have them be organizers in their pods, on their cell blocks where applicable to sign up their quote unquote neighbors? And there, we have a vote by mail in jail.

Break

Salima: You’re listening to Season 3 the podcast 70 Million and the episode “Voting from Jail is a Right, and Now a Reality in Chicago” which is about the push to introduce polling places within prisons. We’re airing 70 million as part of our ongoing series on voting rights in the run up to the 2020 election, so make sure you keep up to date on our shows and get behind the scenes information on our website radioproject.org. And now back to 70 million.

Foster Bates: Mr. Bates is probably hanging outside, hang tight…

Kirkland: Foster Bates has built a very strong network behind the wall. Bates is serving a life sentence at the ​Maine State Prison​.

Bates: Hello?

Kirkland: Hi, Mr. Bates. How are you?

Bates: I’m not too bad. How are you?

Kirkland: He’s been in prison for 19 years. He’s also served as president of a special NAACP prison chapter for the last 6 years. He spoke with me on the phone from his caseworker’s office in a building called 400 G-pod. He talked about one of his main responsibilities as president — getting other people in the prison registered to vote and distributing information about who and what is on the ballot.

Bates: It’s an important voting bloc because if you look at prison society itself, it’s a community. Maine state Prison, I believe in, my opinion is that we have, decided on, quite a few Gubernatorial races in Maine. We’ve also decided on quite a few state representatives in the state. I believe, people incarcerated, if allowed to vote they can swing an election.

Kirkland: ​​Bates tells me this anecdotally. An MIT study suggests that incarcerated voters are unlikely to swing an election​ in any given way. But a recent Marshall Project survey of more than 8,000 people in prisons and jails found that ​76 percent​ of respondents supported restoring voting rights to all incarcerated people.​ Maine and Vermont​ are the only two states that allow people in prison to vote. ​Puerto Rico​, also. In July, the District of Columbia’s City Council voted to approve a measure extending voting rights to residents with felony convictions incarcerated in jail or prison.​ And in Iowa, Governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order in August that temporarily reinstates voting rights for some residents who’ve been convicted of a felony and completed their sentences. Bates says, the Maine State Prison Branch of the NAACP has registered thousands of voters over the years. But for Bates, voting is about much more than any single election.

Bates: It allows people to stay engaged and it allows people to not only take some control and responsibility back for their lives. It also allows them to be able to dictate and create laws and statutes that affect our everyday lives. If you take away the person’s right to vote, you know, we, we believe that you take away a part of their humanity…

Kirkland: An ongoing legal battle in Florida could show the impact incarcerated voters may have on elections. In 2018, a majority of Florida voters elected to amend the state’s constitution to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who completed their sentence, excluding murder and sexual offenses. The passage of the amendment meant about 1.4 million ​people would be eligible to vote. But partisan politics intervened. The Republican-led legislature passed a law requiring that the prison term is completed AND ​all fees and restitution​ have been paid. Democrats accused Republicans of voter suppression by creating a modern day ​poll tax​. The prolonged legal battle has shown how polarizing voting rights issues have become. But contrary to assumptions that the formerly incarcerated would lean politically left, a study by the Marshall Project earlier this year showed that granting the right to vote to currently or formerly incarcerated people wouldn’t benefit ​one political party​ over another. Foster Bates says he sees evidence of that being true in the Maine State Prison.

Bates: One of the misconceptions is that, you know, the majority of people who are incarcerated are Democrats and independent. And, and I can personally tell you, that’s furthest from the truth, particularly at this facility

So, we can remove that misconception on how people incarcerated vote.

Kirkland: The study also found that the longer a person was in prison, their ​motivation to vote increased. In the 2008 election, Bates says the prison chapter of the NAACP registered about 500 people to vote. He thinks 2020 could be even bigger.

Bates: I think this voting cycle is probably one of the most important voting cycles that we had in decades.

Kirkland: Then, Covid-19 hit…

Bates: Our education building is shut down for the time being. The library is shut down for the time being. So the only activity we have is just basically physical activity, just going outside, walking around on the track. We’re all wearing a mask, every, everybody wear a mask, anywhere we go into a facility, we have to wear a mask except within the area which we live in.

Kirkland:​​ Normally, Bates would gather groups of about 150 people in one room to walk them through the process of registering to vote or re-registering to vote. He’d also invite representatives into the prison to talk about party platforms and candidates.

Bates: This year, what we’re gonna try to do is we’re going to try to do it virtual. We’re going to try to do what to set up on a Zoom type of format, where we can have the candidates Zoom in, set it up in the multipurpose, chapel area like we, like we’ve done in the past and have it on a big screen.

Kirkland: But how do you safely run an in-person election while trying to contain the spread of a deadly virus? For months, the Cook County jail​was a hotspot for the coronavirus. In fact, just after we spoke with detainees about their voting experiences for this episode, in-person visits were banned from the facility until infection numbers came down.

Stevie Valles: The impact of having polling machines in the jail was felt immediately. And then Wednesday after our first weekend having elections in the jail, the NBA season was canceled. Then everything just started getting shut down.

Kirkland:​​ Stevie Valles is the executive director of Chicago Votes, the nonprofit that worked with Sheriff Dart to get voting machines into the jail in March. For Valles, part of the reason the primary election was so successful was that voting inside the jail meant his group could register voters on the same day. He estimates that of the approximately 1800 voters over those two weekends, about half used same-day voter registration. Now, they’re strategizing how to move forward to November.

Valles: Well, we can’t register voters right now inside the jail. We can’t go into jail right now because the jail is a hot spot.​​ Is this the right thing for us to be doing right now with all that is happening?

Kirkland: Valles estimates that roughly 80% of Chicago Votes volunteers in the jail are over 50, and therefore are at a higher risk for severe illness or death ​from Covid-19.

Valles: We’re at a place now where a lot of the conversation is pivoting towards the election. It does feel like this is an appropriate time to lean back into this work because, let’s face it, voting right now is one of the few direct actions that nobody can stop people from doing. A lot of people are looking for that. ​​They’re looking for some level of empowerment and what has felt like a very helpless year. So, we are now moving in a direction where we’re figuring out what, how we would like the elections to look inside the jail come November.

Kirkland: Sheriff Dart is also looking toward November and the safest way to keep voting in the jail.

Dart: It was just beginning to really take hold when this was going on. And just basic things like getting election judges in our poll watchers that was trickier than because of that. For us to then allow detainees out to go to a poll to vote, I just don’t think that’s going to be that tricky to do. I mean, we can obviously social distance people away from the actual polling machines and in the line to come in and vote. So I don’t think that will be that difficult, but there will be some logistical hurdles that we didn’t have before, but I honestly don’t see a change in a heck of a lot.

Kirkland: That’s a relief for the folks at Chicago Votes.

Valles: If the sheriff is thinking, yeah, we can figure it out to where we can have polling machines in here do say social distancing, no problem. Plus let’s have an absentee ballot chase program running at the same time to be incompliance with the law that was just passed Illinois, then me and the sheriff agree. Turning the Cook County jail into a polling location was the first step in what we plan on being a very long term initiative to unlock civics for people who are in the justice system specifically the incarcerated community.

Kirkland: ​​After what she says was a positive first experience, Miram Tello is anticipating November.

Tello: I’m looking forward to voting again. Kirkland:​​Criminal justice advocates have highlighted the need to make voting more accessible from all carceral facilities and have pointed to a resistance to doing so as an infringement on a constitutional right.

Tello: We’re definitely not convicted. We’re just, it’s sad because it says innocent till proven guilty, but technically in here we’re guilty until proven innocent. So I think they should have it in all jails because we are all innocent at the moment.

Kirkland: Miriam Tello knows she has every right to vote.

Miller: Pamela Kirkland reported this story. After Florida voters passed the Voting Restoration Amendment in 2018 to restore voting rights ​to people with past felony convictions, two years later an appeals court decision has effectively ​stalled access​ to the voting booth for hundreds of thousands of people. In early September, an appeals court upheld the state’s decision to require people with felony convictions pay court fines and fees before they can register to vote. Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement, quote “This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote” end quote.

Salima: You ‘ve been listening to the podcast 70 million – Voting from Jail is a Right, and Now a Reality in Chicago.” You can find a full list of credits, and even an activism toolkit on this issue on our website, if you’ve gotten inspired to help prisoners vote. That’s at radioproject.org

And we’d love to hear from you – what other election topics do you think we should cover?  Join the conversation on Facebook;  — Our Twitter handle is Making_Contact and on Instagram we’re  makingcontactradioproject.

The Making Contact Team includes:

Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Lisa Rudman, Sonya Green. I’m Salima Hamirani.  Thanks for listening to Making Contact!

Author: Radio Project

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