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Voter Education at Rikers Island

Winette Saunders-Halyard, set out to inform every inmate about his or her right to vote. She asked us to assist her…

  • Liz Budnitz
November 21, 2008

photoThere are approximately 14,000 inmates on Rikers Island, a vast complex of jails less than a mile away from Manhattan in New York City. Led by Commissioner Martin Horn’s vision, Winette Saunders-Halyard, the Executive Director of Program Development at Rikers, set out to inform every inmate about his or her right to vote. She asked the Brennan Center for Justice and the New York Voter Assistance Commission to assist her in an unprecedented voter education and registration program during the weeks leading up to the 2008 election.

Together with the Department of Corrections staff and colleagues at the Bronx Defenders, I spoke to hundreds of inmates in the gym, their housing units, the social service waiting areas, and the medical clinics while they waited to be seen.

The same stories came up again and again. “I can’t vote.” “If you have a felony conviction you can never vote again.” “After I finished my prison sentence, I was told that I had to wait ten years before I could vote.” “Why should I vote? They don’t count the votes of ex-cons anyway.” All common myths and misconceptions.

In New York State, people who are in jail can vote by absentee ballot if they have been charged with, but not convicted of, a felony, or if they have only a misdemeanor conviction. Turns out, more than 81% of inmate population within in the custody of the Department of Correction consists of detainees. These are individuals who are awaiting trial and have not been convicted, and are therefore eligible to vote. In addition, of the individuals who have been sentenced, there are approximately one thousand inmates convicted of misdemeanors. They can also vote. However, few are aware of this

As I spoke about the law to a sea of faces, it was easy to figure out which New Yorkers de facto disenfranchisement (read BC report, De Facto Disenfrachisement, here) affects the most. They come from the most under-privileged neighborhoods in New York City.

“I know when you’re inside jail, you don’t think you have a lot of rights,” Ms. Saunders-Halyard regularly told inmates throughout the sessions. “But you do,” she’d continue, “and one of them is the right to vote if you meet the criteria, and you should exercise it because it’s your chance to get your voice heard and it is an opportunity for you to reconnect with your community.”

The right to vote may not be the first thing on inmates’ minds, but as I stressed, the right to vote is crucial. It is a right preservative of all other civil rights. The needs of poor and minority communities go unmet in part because these communities are disenfranchised; the lack opportunity and resources attributed to the lack of a voice in government—a cycle perpetuated on both sides of prison walls.

At least regarding voting, this can be easily remedied. First, simplify New York law to restore voting rights to persons as soon as they leave prison. Doing so would keep citizens from having to navigate confusing laws, red tape and registration procedures. Second, educate elections officials and criminal justice officials so everyone correctly understands basic eligibility requirements (surprisingly, many officials are misinformed). And third, ensure that each person who leaves prison is informed that he or she is again eligible to register and vote.

Ms. Saunders-Halyard attributed the initiative’s success to the leadership of Commissioner Martin Horn and Deputy Commissioner Kathleen Coughlin for creating a conducive environment that promotes education and personal growth among the inmate population. I was honored to be a part of their unique effort.

We left Rikers each day with a bag full of voter registration forms. My experience at Rikers connected personal stories to the numbers and statistics we often quote in publications—the thousands of New Yorkers disenfranchised each year. It re-energized me to make sure that all those who are actually eligible to vote take part in our democratic process.