The Practical Nomad blog

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Voting from prison (a story from 1984)

As a result of changes in the law in Florida in 2018 and more recently in the District of Columbia, many prisoners and former prisoners who wouldn't have been allowed to vote in previous elections are able to vote today for the first time since their conviction or incarceration.

Like DC residents voting today from the DC Jail and Federal prisons around the country (all crimes committed in the District are Federal, and there is a subculture of convicts from DC in almost every Federal prison), I once voted while imprisoned for a felony. Even though I'm an anarchist and ambivalent about voting at all, it was one of my most effective and influential political acts while in prison -- not because my vote had any impact on the Democratic party political machine in Cambridge, MA, but because of its effect on other prisoners and their sense of self-worth.

I was convicted in Federal District Court in Boston in 1982 of willful refusal to present myself for and submit to registration with the Selective Service System for a possible military draft (a Federal felony), and "served" a six-month sentence of imprisonment beginning two days before Thanksgiving in 1983.

At the time of my imprisonment, I was a resident and registered voter in Cambridge, MA. Massachusetts was then one of only three states -- all in New England -- that did not in any way restrict (and never had restricted) the franchise of prisoners or convicts.

Federal prisoners can be sent anywhere in the country, and there was, at that time, no Federal prison in Massachusetts. As the 1984 primary elections for Federal offices, and -- if I remember correctly, municipal elections in Cambridge -- approached, I was incarcerated in the Federal prison Camp at Lewisburg, PA (a minimum-security camp on the grounds of, and operated as a unit of, the maximum-security prison).

I wrote to the Cambridge City Clerk to request an absentee ballot, and in due course it arrived at the prison.

Normally, all mail for prisoners at Lewisburg, including inmates in the camp, was censored by officials inside "the Wall" at the main mail room for the prison. Had that happened to my ballot, I would never have known that it had arrived at the prison and been withheld.

But I was something of a cause célèbre, I was receiving many times more mail than any of the other inmates, and the Bureau of Prisons had issued orders to the prison administration subjecting me to special treatment (mostly to my detriment, but occasionally to my benefit).

Every afternoon, two bundles of mail were sent out to the camp from the prison: One of my mail, uncensored, and one of censored mail for all the other camp inmates.

The assistant warden for the camp, Mr. Swisher (who had the Orwellian title of camp "counselor") would read out the name of each prisoner who had received mail and hand out the letters and packages.

After this general mail call, the "camp counselor" would call me into his office and go through my mail item by item in front of me. This gave me the opportunity to see what he was withholding, and to contest his decisions.

(The most amusing incident was when a friend sent me some printouts of Usenet discussions -- an early form of online social media -- and Swisher refused to give them to me because he didn't understand the addresses and headers and thought they might be coded messages!)

The day my absentee ballot arrived, Swisher opened the envelope, took one (surprised) glance at the contents, and immediately moved to toss it in the trash. "This is a ballot. Prisoners can't vote."

"I know you think prisoners can't vote, Mr. Swisher. But look at the envelope, where the City Clerk's office addressed it to, 'Edward Hasbrouck, Prisoner #13603-038, Federal Prison Camp, Lewisburg, PA.' I think they knew they were sending this to a prisoner, and they probably wouldn't have done that if they didn't think I could vote. Why don't you humor me, and do yourself a favor. Instead of throwing that away, why don't you put it aside and check out the rules before you decide what to do? I wouldn't want you to get in trouble."

Swisher's redeeming merit was that, although he was stupid, he knew he was stupid. He was unsure of himself, especially when it came to abstractions like law. And he knew that any decisions he made about me would be subject to second-guessing by Bureau of Prisons officials in Washington, and could get him in trouble with his immediate boss, the warden at Lewisburg, if he made a mistake. His was one of the better jobs in the depressed little town of Lewisburg, and like any bureaucrat with a civil service sinecure, he didn't want to run afoul of his superiors. They could easily reassign him to a nominally similar but much more difficult and dangerous posting behind the Wall of the penitentiary at Lewisburg, or to another maximum-security institution in some even less attractive Siberia of the American gulag like Ray Brook, NY, or Sandstone, MN.

Swisher put the ballot aside, gave me the rest of my mail, and dismissed me. I went back to the dorm and got in line for the bank of payphones to call for legal reinforcements, while he, I presume, was calling Washington for his marching orders.

I don't remember the chain of connections, but I knew someone through the National Lawyers Guild who knew someone who worked at the Secretary of State's office. By mail call the next day, Swisher had gotten a call from the State House in Boston, wanting to know if he was withholding a ballot from a Massachusetts resident and sternly informing him that the Commonwealth would not look kindly on any interference with the right of its citizens to vote.

Meanwhile, word had gotten around the dorm that Hasbrouck had tried to vote. How could I be so uppity, and so naive? Didn't I know that prisoners can't vote? What a fool I must be! Everyone had a pitying laugh at my expense.

When I came out of Swisher's office the next day holding a conspicuous large manilla envelope with my absentee ballot, the buzz had started even before I got back to my bunk in the dorm. All evening, a procession of other inmates -- starting with some of the other Massachusetts residents -- came by my cubicle. They wanted to see my ballot. They wanted to touch it, to feel that it was real.

Voting by mail was neither the norm, nor an option available for the asking. In Massachusetts at that time, as in most states, one could vote by absentee ballot only if one would be absent from the jurisdiction on election day, or was unable to get to the polls. An absentee ballot had to be notarized or have the voter's signature witnessed by an official of the institution, if the voter was institutionalized. So when I was ready to cast my vote, Swisher had to sign as witness to my signature (without being shown who I had voted for). The voting ritual served to further impress on him that some prisoners can vote, notwithstanding the myth to the contrary.

As a felon, I voted from prison. As a felon, I've voted ever since. I'd be loath to move to a state where I would lose that right.

Voting was perhaps the most important "teachable moment" in the six months I spent in various prisons and jails. My ballot was tangible and empowering confirmation to other prisoners and to the prison administration -- to the surprise of both -- that prisoners were still people, still part of the polity, and still entitled to participate (in a limited way, of course) in some of the decisions that affect their lives.

It's important to realize, however, that none of this was normal, then or now. Most prisoners, even if they knew they were entitled to vote, wouldn't have had my special status within the prison or my legal contacts on the outside. In 2000, Massachusetts voters amended the state constitution to disenfranchise prisoners serving sentences for felonies. That decision is now being reconsidered, but has not yet been reversed.

More importantly, the myths that "prisoners can't vote" and "felons can't vote" often become self-fulfilling. Because prisoners and former prisoners assume they can't vote, they don't try -- and if they do, officials often misinform them or deny their rights. For what it's worth, the same thing often happens with felons and jury service. Many eligible felons disqualify themselves from juries, as from voting, because of confusing or misleading instructions about past criminal convictions and eligibility to vote or serve on juries.

In practice, most imprisoned Massachusetts residents in 1984 had no more "right" to vote than did most Black Mississippians in 1963. Nothing in the law prohibited them from voting, but they didn't believe they had the right to vote, those around them didn't believe that they had the right to vote, and they probably wouldn't have been allowed to vote (as I almost wasn't) if they tried.

Rights are important, but what matter are not the rights in books but the rights -- whether derived from law or from ethics -- that people know they have and are empowered and unafraid to exercise, and that others recognize and allow them to exercise.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 3 November 2020, 08:41 ( 8:41 AM)
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