By Rahsaan Thomas
Journalism Guild Chairman
Many people are disgusted with America’s problems, yet they neglect the one remedy they have to do something about them – voting, a group of San Quentin inmates concluded.
Felon voting rights vary widely from state to state. In California, convicted felons cannot vote while in jail, in prison or on parole. They regain voting rights after clearing parole.
Those sitting in the county jail awaiting an outcome of their case can still vote if they aren’t on parole, according to Joe Paul of the Jericho Vocational Center.
Despite not being able to vote themselves, inmates John “Yayah” Johnson, Jamie Sanchez and Eric Curtis met on San Quentin’s Lower Yard discussed the importance and power of the ballot box. (This is the first of a two-part series.)
Q. The last election had a low turnout. Why do you believe people aren’t voting?
Johnson: “I think it is definitely voters’ apathy, but part of the problem is people aren’t being told about how powerful their vote is in local and federal elections. Felons can’t vote, but that could be changed by a ballot proposition. In some of these close elections, had felons been allowed to vote, they would have turned the tide.”
“When it’s a whole group banding together, voting can have an impact”
Allowing felons to vote would restore the right to well over 4 million Americans in the communities most neglected by politicians, according to a Sentencing Project Report. It was titled: “State-Level Estimate of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010” by Christopher Uggen and Sarah Shannon.
Curtis: “They just took the ex-con box off job applications. If you had that same push to get felons to vote, we would win.”
Sanchez: “People who are immigrants or have criminal records can’t vote (in many states). In Mexico, people stopped voting because they believe it is pointless. It’s set up, and the vote doesn’t really count.”
Over 5.85 million Americans cannot take part in an election because of laws that bar convicted felons from voting, according to the Sentencing Project Report.
Curtis: “We passed Prop. 36, then the courts came with totally different rules about who it applies to. It’s a tricky issue…even if you voted for something, the courts can use their interpretation…that’s why people of color don’t trust voting.”
Sanchez: “I think there is a mentality that politicians are prioritizing what is politically correct over prioritizing the right thing to do. They built this tough-on-crime idea that criminals need to be in prison forever, so it’s hard to go back on their campaign pledges and do what is actually better for society.”
Q. Do you believe voting makes a difference?
Johnson: “I absolutely think voting makes a difference, at least on a local level. Politicians don’t always do their jobs, but when they don’t, we can vote them out. Gray Davis was ousted (from the governor’s job) through recall. That shows the vote is relevant.”
Sanchez: “When it’s a whole group banding together, voting can have an impact. When you are an individual, it makes you feel like nobody.”
Curtis: “People of color are more apprehensive of voting because they don’t think it works for them. They don’t see a change in their environment.”
Johnson: “We have this idea in America that voting doesn’t matter because politicians control everything, and that’s not true. The government is for the people, by the people. We have the power to protest, get signatures and vote. If we ain’t happy, we can change leadership.”
In the concluding part of this series, the Yard Talk panel will discuss ways to motivate people to return to the polls.