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Richmond’s former prisoners get out the vote

on November 6, 2018

This year, California had the largest number of people registered to vote in the state’s history, with nearly 20 million ready to hit today’s polls. Formerly incarcerated people in Richmond, some of whom are voting for the first time, helped the state reach that record. In the lead up to the election, organizations across the city worked to educate formerly incarcerated people and their families about their right to vote.

Laws vary across the country on voting rights for those who have served time or are currently imprisoned. In some states, including Maine and Vermont, voting rights are never revoked, regardless of what a person has been convicted for. In others, like Arizona, people serving time for a felony can’t vote until they’re out of prison, and those who have been convicted twice or more must have their civil rights reinstated by a judge before they can vote again.

California falls in the middle of these two extremes. People who aren’t currently serving time in a state or federal prison and aren’t on parole are eligible. This includes most people in county jails, thanks to a law signed in 2016 by Gov. Jerry Brown.  

Chala Bonner and her team at the Safe Return Project–all formerly incarcerated–have reached out to nearly 1,000 potential voters in Richmond, encouraging them to get to the polls. 

Chala Bonner, a community organizer with the Safe Return Project, a Richmond organization that supports the re-entry of those coming home from imprisonment, says that many of those in county jails and formerly incarcerated don’t know that they’re likely to be eligible to vote.

Their confusion is easy to understand. Check out the Secretary of State’s explanation of who is eligible to vote, and you’ll find a list of seemingly contradictory bullet points. For example, people can vote if they’re in a county jail as a condition of their sentence but can’t if they’re in county jail serving time for a state prison felony.

Bonner, who served a short sentence in Solano County Jail, says she thought she couldn’t vote until she ran into somebody who said, “‘You can,’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to the polls right now.’”

Bonner now oversees a team of seven formerly incarcerated people at Safe Return Project who help to educate others on their voting rights. In the weeks leading up to the election, the team made several visits to the West County Detention Facility to encourage people incarcerated there to vote. They also knocked on doors across Richmond to register formerly incarcerated people and other community members, reaching nearly 1,000 people.

On the afternoon of election day, hours before the polls closed, the team called these same people again to encourage them to vote.

Cherice Anderson (left) and Keyonna Williams, volunteers with Safe Return Project, make calls from the organization’s office at 6 p.m. on election night, asking community members if they voted.

“People who were incarcerated feel like they have to just do what you’re told, what other people say,” said Bonner. “I want people to know that they can help to change the narrative. That they have a voice”

Edward Williams, 77, voted for the first time in the 2018 midterm election.

Edward Williams, 77, volunteers at the front desk of Reentry Success Center, which lies across the street from Safe Return and hosts classes and support groups for those recently released from incarceration. The re-entry center offers lessons in topics as diverse as cognitive behavior change and resume writing.

This is the first election Williams has ever voted in. He’s been imprisoned four different times since he was 18 years old.  After his most recent incarceration of 30 years for second-degree murder, he returned to Richmond, where he grew up. That was four years ago. He was on parole during the 2016 presidential election but didn’t register until this year.

“I wanted to vote because I’ve never voted before,” says Williams, who voted by mail. “It felt good. I felt like I had a sense of power, I guess you could say.”

Williams’ business card introduces him simply as a “community advocate.” He carries with him a binder full of newspaper clippings, certificates and photos that document the numerous activities he’s been involved in, from pushing for greater access to food stamps to supporting the opening of the reentry center. He says he continues to be inspired by civil rights leaders of the 1960s, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and recounting stories of his days as a member of the Nation of Islam in the 1960s.

“Voting gave me some more insight on what people went through trying to get the vote,” Williams says. “The longer I live, I see there are still disenfranchising people. It’s amazing that’s going on in the richest country in the world.”

California’s notoriously long ballot didn’t make Williams’ first voting experience easy. “For those names I didn’t know, I just didn’t fill out anything,” he said. But he’s clear on the issues that matter to him. “When I went to prison, I didn’t see any homeless people, but now I see people with PhDs, and they’re homeless. There’s something wrong with that picture right there.”

He was encouraged to vote by the re-entry center’s staff, who help to oversee voter registration drives and talk to members about their voting rights.

Dameion King, 41, is a coach at the re-entry center. “We’ve registered as many people as we could,” he says. “Because when a person can’t effectively participate in society, that’s poverty.”

King was first convicted of homicide at age 16, later found guilty of possession of a firearm and drugs and most recently imprisoned for a parole violation. He got involved in politics in 2000, when Richmond residents created a tent city to protest homelessness. He even ran for the Richmond City Council in 2014.  “I wanted to demonstrate that someone like me can re-invent themselves, and contribute,” says King. “That’s America. In America we love to come back and get second chances.”

Michael Fulmore, 40, is another first-time voter and member of the re-entry center, which is cutting its hours early today to encourage voting. He served nearly 13 years for manslaughter and assault with a firearm. Even though he was eligible to vote in the last election, he didn’t feel engaged enough with politics or society to vote. “I’m trying to learn to trust the system,” he says. “I want to move forward. I know that I can’t do it by myself so I have to learn about the people who are trying to do something about these things now that I am eligible to do something about it.”

Pat Mims, 56, executive director of the re-entry center, understands the skepticism many feel about engaging with the political process.

Pat Mims, 56, is the executive director of the Reentry Success Center. On Tuesday, he voted for the third time since serving a nearly 21-year sentence.

“I had grown up not part of the system at all. I felt that the system was against me and I was against it,” says Mims, who was incarcerated for nearly 21 years for second-degree murder. “I understand now that it’s important to be part of the system in order to make change.”

He said he would be voting Tuesday in his third election.

Both the re-entry center and the Safe Return Project say they’re nonpartisan, and don’t campaign for specific candidates.

“We’re a community asset, not a political voice,” says Mims.

Still, Bonner has priorities for the election.

“I want candidates looking out for strong schools, because the school-to-prison pipeline is real. I want someone who will fight for rent control because gentrification is a big thing.”

But she says that even though the last election didn’t go the way she desired, she still believed voting was crucial.

“No vote is no voice, and I don’t want anyone else to speak for us.”

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