For many returning citizens it’s the last frontier.
Within the broader provision of civil rights, ability to elect officials to represent them is viewed as especially important among many ex-offenders who’ve served time in prison.
In Michigan and throughout the country, activists, legislators and communities impacted by mass incarceration are part of an ongoing discussion about voter rights and criminal justice. Flint’s MADE Institute, which advocates for returning citizens, is helping to lead a charge to empower ex-offenders and increase political awareness. While MADE specializes in mentoring, job training, housing and other resources needed by returning citizens, the organization also aims to help impact the outcome of November’s election.
“We’ve been expanding the programs,” says Leon El-Alamin, MADE’s founder.
As part of an outreach strategy developed with support from partners including the Washington-based Advancement Project, eight MADE volunteers recently helped register 200 new voters during a visit to Genesee County Jail.
“Serving that population, in particular, I think it’s very critical and important, with the barriers we’re already facing, to let them know that their voice does matter,” says El-Alamin, who was released from prison eight years ago.
“These politicians want our votes and they make these decisions about our lives. We should have a seat at the table.”
Myths and misconceptions about voter rights and incarceration abound, says Ashley Carter, staff attorney for the Advancement Project. For example, Michigan’s incarcerated population loses voting power only during the period that prisoners serve their sentences, not permanently, she says. Meanwhile, states like Florida take away the voting rights of convicted felons for the remainder of their lives, with only the governor having authority to reinstate their rights. The Advancement Project recently generated a report about legislation that will let Floridians vote to address the issue of disenfranchisement for returning citizens this year.
“We were making this discovery that so many people had no idea that they could vote,” Carter says.
In preparing for the ongoing campaign, the organization even found judges who were uncertain about the law, she says.
There are other misconceptions that don’t only apply to convicted felons, such as the notion that homeless citizens aren’t allowed to vote, El-Alamin adds.
With the support of Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, he says he and the volunteers who visited the jail found a receptive audience in the inmates. Even while awaiting trial, county jail prisoners are allowed to vote using absentee ballots, says El-Alamin.
“When we engage with them they engage with their family and loved ones, and that way it spreads,” he says. “It’s a form of empowerment. We talk to them about a lot of their cases. We ask them why they think they might have been over-sentenced for crimes where in other areas someone might get a slap on the wrist.
“One way to change that is to advocate, organize and vote to change the policy.”
Along with planning future visits to jails throughout Michigan, including, Detroit, Pontiac, Saginaw, Lansing and others in rural areas, MADE is discussing the formation of a caucus for returning citizens.
“The basic theme is that (formerly incarcerated) individuals like myself, who have had an opportunity to overcome and advocate for this population, we would like to have different individuals in cities and counties, as well as our professors, judges and attorneys, who understand this issue,” El-Alamin says. “It was just something we always wanted to do, and it was a matter of having the resources in this critical time, with so many of our families who are disgusted with circumstances, from the water crisis to the politics in the city and in the country.”
Advancement Project is a racial justice organization that also focuses on immigrant rights, mass incarceration, policing issues and offers support to grassroots programs, like MADE, throughout the country. The Project views voting as a good way for returning citizens to get “involved in things that take place in their communities,” Carter says. Initiatives by MADE and other organizations and volunteers can be impactful in reintroducing formerly incarcerated men and women to the democratic process.
“I would definitely say so,” Carter says. “One of the things I think about a lot and that I’m concerned about is the way that we help people reintegrate after they’ve spent time behind bars.”
Lead photo: With help from volunteers, Leon El-Alamin (LEFT), founder of Flint’s MADE Institute, recently registered 200 voters at Genesee County Jail. Photo courtesy MADE