Voter registration drive held in an unusual place: a local prison

Inmates at the Onondaga County Justice Center were informed of their voting rights last week by local advocacy groups.

On a cool October morning, just one week before the local voter registration deadline, a 19-year-old inmate in a tan jumpsuit huddled around the kitchen area at the Onondaga County Justice Center to hear a presentation about voting. Thoughts of his upcoming trial for a felony charge weighed heavily on his mind as he remembered that this is a big year for him. It is his first presidential election, the first time he would be eligible to be denied the right to vote in the state of New York -- or so he thought.

“It’s really important that people understand that just because you have a criminal history, your rights are not automatically taken from you."
Lanessa Owens

But on Friday, the first ever Voter Registration Drive held at the prison changed all that as representatives from the CNY Women’s Bar Association, the Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Syracuse City School District distributed paperwork that described the voting rights of people in the criminal justice system. They informed this young man that since he is awaiting trial and has not yet been convicted of the felony he was charged with, he is still eligible to vote in the state of New York.

“He had no idea,” said Lanessa L. Owens, a staff attorney at the Volunteer Lawyers Project. “He just kind of assumed that once you’re arrested you automatically lose your right to vote, so he was pretty excited to get involved in the political system.”

Owens and Kim Morrell, a member of the Board of Directors for the CNY Women’s Bar Association, had worked with the Justice Center to plan this event after recognizing that this population of 122,000 incarcerated individuals statewide is underserved in the voter registration process.

For three hours on Friday morning, they visited four “pods,” arrangements of prison cells that contain between 40-50 inmates each, and spoke with inmates about New York voting laws and distributing informational pamphlets and voter registration forms to those who were eligible. They ultimately registered 40 inmates,  who will soon receive absentee ballots from the Onondaga County Board of Elections so they can participate in the November elections.

“There wasn’t a dull moment,” said Owens. “As soon as we made the announcement, they came crawling. And they were all around us, asking questions, getting registered to vote, getting papers. We were pretty busy in there.”

While this was the first formal registration drive at the prison, inmates had previously been able to request voter registration forms from Ann Jamison, the prison’s law librarian and social worker who would coordinate with teachers from the Syracuse City School District to let students at the prison know that the option was available.

This option, however, was not always taken advantage of, as many inmates didn't know know that they were eligible to vote while awaiting trial in prison, and many inmates didn't know that they would be allowed to re-register to vote after serving their sentences and parole. According to a study by the Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. that advocates for criminal justice reform, more than 40 percent of prisoners nationwide believe that incarceration causes someone to permanently lose voting rights.

“There’s quite a bit of misinformation about the right to vote, both on the part of people who have felony convictions and sometimes even the election officials themselves,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. “So in addition to the six million people who are legally disenfranchised, there’s likely to be substantially more who also don’t vote because of misunderstanding of the law itself.”

Sargent Thomas McDowell, who has been working at the prison since 2008 and helped with the voter registration drive, said the main component of the event was education.

After distributing pamphlets and giving a general statement about voter registration to inmates who had gathered in each pod, McDowell, Owens, Morell and Jamison spoke with each inmate who had questions individually, talking through their criminal histories and explaining which laws apply to them.

“It’s really important that people understand that just because you have a criminal history, your rights are not automatically taken from you,” Owens said. “The right to vote is a constitutional right.”

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