Justice for All: PEP and Gephardt Institute Host Voting Rights Restoration Panel

On Monday, September 26th, the Prison Education Project hosted a panel discussion on the status of voting rights for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in Missouri as a part of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement’s Civic Action Week. The conversation featured Jameel Spann, Violence Intervention Specialist at the Freedom Community Center and PEP alumnus, and Denise Lieberman, Director and General Counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition and WashU Law professor, and was moderated by Kevin Windhauser, Director of the Prison Education Project.

Both panelists began the afternoon by explaining the importance of voting rights access for formerly incarcerated people and how many people are affected by voter disenfranchisement.

“I think voting access is pivotal for people who are transitioning out of carceral settings because between 85 and 90 percent of people in state and federal prisons are coming out, right? That’s a huge number. Missouri in particular incarcerates more people than any other country in the world,” said Jameel Spann, emphasizing where the state stands in the context of the broader issue of disenfranchisement.

Denise Lieberman addressed the scale of the issue by national numbers of people deprived of the right to vote and how that impacts elections, stating that “there’s over 5 million people in this country who can’t vote because of a criminal conviction. It’s a lot of people. It’s enough to change elections, especially in certain races, given that housing segregation continues to disparately place communities of color into election districts in places in the South like Florida that, until recently, permanently banned any person with a felony conviction from voting for the rest of their life.”

While Missouri does not permanently ban formerly incarcerated people from voting, the state does fall into a large subset of states that restrict voting rights access until individuals are no longer under any form of state supervision, like probation or parole. This results in large groups of people who have completed their sentence and returned to their communities, but are still unable to vote. The situation is compounded by recent Missouri voter ID laws, which added a provision to Missouri election law that all voters must be able to present a valid Missouri DMV ID before voting, something that not all formerly incarcerated people have access to immediately after release.

“I can certainly say from a PEP perspective, there are very, very few reentry services offered in the state of Missouri by the actual DOC. It’s all done by private organizations. We do it in-house in PEP. They’re supposed to be able to give you two things: your social security card and your birth certificate when you’re leaving Missouri prison and I would say, at least in my time with PEP, the success rate on that is probably 25% of them actually being able to get people those documents when they leave,” explained Kevin Windhauser.

Beyond the practical concerns of discrimination based on parole status and a lack of access to identification, denying voting rights to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people sends a sinister and deeply impactful message about their importance to broader society.

“Voting is how people feel connected to community. And more than that–and this is really what drives me and all the work that I do on voting rights–it is the mechanism, the structural mechanism we have in society that says you matter. Literally, that you count. And so when the right to vote is denied or abridged, or particularly when we target that denial or abridgment to particular communities, what does that say? You don’t matter. And then what commitment do you have to that society or that community?” said Lieberman.

Despite the common emphasis on recidivism rates as a metric to measure individuals’ success post-incarceration, Jameel Spann explained why they cannot fully measure a successful reentry–and how that relates to voting rights.

“In higher education in prison spaces in our community, we kind of view recidivism as a failing measure. It really doesn’t accurately measure it. I mean, people in workforce development and other political pundits or whatever might say that recidivism is hugely important, but our argument in higher ed in prison spaces is that even if people don’t go back, if they don’t have opportunities and access or resources to have a decent quality of life, you could be living downtown under the bridge and never recidivate. You could never go back, but you aren’t really a part of the community,” explained Spann.

Having the ability to vote to affect change in one’s community is a significant marker of belonging and quality of life for formerly incarcerated people and its abridgment must be taken seriously as a limitation on a successful reentry after incarceration.

“Everybody has a right to have a voice in their future and that’s really what it comes down to,” said Lieberman. “I don’t care who you vote for, but if you don’t have the ability to have a say in what happens to you in your life, then you are not free.”

All photo credits to Scott Allen, Gephardt Institute.

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