I recently joined a delegation from the Women of Color Foundation for its first annual Leadership Symposium-Prison Outreach Initiative to participate in a daylong conference with about 250 incarcerated women at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. In a large assembly-style room, we were greeted with a beautiful banner and mural that was painted by some resident artists. First on the agenda, I led an interactive session about the voting rights for people with criminal convictions. Pop Quiz on Voting My opening question to the women was, “How many of you have voted in the past?” The majority of the women raised their hands. When I asked if they could vote upon release from prison some were unsure. Before we discussed what Ohio law permits we talked through why voting is important. Elected officials decide what is criminal and what is not, how schools are be funded, whether or not counties will have diversion programs, whether people get probation or jail time, among other things.
If you’ve been convicted of a crime, you can vote! Know the facts.
Heads were nodding in awareness and comprehension. I then let them know that 5.86 million people in the United States are prohibited from voting. Leading the Way In Ohio, however, people with criminal convictions can vote! The only exception is that people who are currently incarcerated for a felony can’t vote but can register to vote once they are no longer in jail, prison, or a community-based correctional facility. It’s important for people who have had previous contact with the criminal justice system to vote, engage with, and educate elected officials. Impacted people have firsthand knowledge of the justice system and are well positioned to make recommendations to change the system. This is exactly what three formerly incarcerated women are doing with great success. I shared their amazing stories and what I’ve learned from each of them:
- Susan Burton is a CNN hero, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and a criminal justice and voting rights advocate. She was incarcerated six times.
- Piper Kerman wrote “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” which was adapted into a hit Netflix show. She also is a communications consultant and justice reform advocate. She was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
- Kemba Smith heads up her own foundation, wrote “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story,” and is a voting rights advocate. She was sentenced to 24.5 years in prison.
As the women of the Ohio Reformatory for Women looked up at the pictures of Burton, Kerman, and Smith on the large projector screen, they smiled. Each of these women are leveraging their experiences to change policies and laws around the country. They and countless other formerly incarcerated people serve on sentencing commissions, testify before legislatures, and meet with elected officials regularly.
Register to vote by October 5. Check out our “Three-Step Guide to Voting” to learn what you need to know.
At the end of the program, all 250 women shook hands with each of the speakers and expressed their appreciation for the individual presentations. One individual shared as she held my hand, “Just because we’re here doesn’t mean we’re dead. We want to contribute.” Take a moment to share this information with another, you may learn a lot about perseverance and humanity.