Strategies for Working in Jails

There are several strategies that you can use to increase the effectiveness of the jail voting process. These include initiating conversations with your local jail before planning the project, mobilizing volunteers trained specifically in voter registration, finding coalition partners for your initiative and configuring a security plan with corrections officers to both protect volunteers and ensure the greatest number of detainees are registered to vote.

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Building a Collaborative Team

When multiple organizations collaborate on the planning and logistics of the project it can lessen the burden on your resources and disperse responsibility amongst coalition partners. Sharing responsibilities will also improve the fluidity of the implementation process and decrease costs. A helpful tip for finding collaborative partners is completing a preliminary search of agencies directly engaged with the re-entry community.

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    Ideal partners may be voter registration groups, agencies providing direct services to returning citizens or detainees, social workers, public defenders, attorneys, bar associations, students, and job opportunity task forces or employers assisting your target population.

    Next, schedule a time to discuss your plans through an in-person meeting, conference call or by asking a mutual acquaintance to introduce you for the purpose of discussing your initiative. After establishing your coalition, plan strategy meetings and brainstorm how you will implement your project. One of the first steps will be contacting the Sheriff’s Office, the Warden or the official responsible for managing the jail.

    You can send a letter expressing your interest in helping with voter registration in the jail and asking “what is the best way to proceed.” You may also want to advise the jail’s official(s) of Ohio’s felony disenfranchisement laws and who is eligible to vote in Ohio. Upon sending a letter, follow up with a phone call and ask for an in-person meeting. The administrator may be receptive to your efforts, somewhat apprehensive or non-responsive.


Aligning with Political Campaigns or Parties

Aligning with a political campaign or party is not suggested.

    Your voter registration campaign should remain nonpartisan. Detainees who perceive you are aligned with one political party may perceive you are trying to register them to vote to further your party’s political agenda. Your aim is to register everyone regardless of their political leanings or apathy toward the voting process.

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    Partnering with a partisan organization can undercut the credibility of your voting initiative and lead detainees to question your motives. Working on a nonpartisan platform also reduces any coercion on the part of volunteers and assures detainees their registration will not be discarded for their political views. Lastly, the project will not discontinue if a specific political party changes office or an opposing party challenges the jail voting initiative.


Creating ‘Inside’ Connections

At times, the Sheriff or jail’s warden may not be interested in, or may even be opposed to, registering detainees.

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    In this case, an inside connection may be helpful for creating a partnership and bridging the divide with unwilling officials. This could be a corrections officer already registering detainees, a social worker, public defender or an agency with regular access to the jail. Examples of agencies include social service providers who manage addiction recovery and crisis intervention groups, psychiatric services, education courses and registration for Medicaid. Probation and parole officers working directly with the jails may also be a good link to your jail’s warden.

    The strongest ally, however, may be the jail’s social workers because they oversee intake screening and assessment, supervision, case management, ongoing treatment plans and parole and release planning. The social workers can adequately assess the number of detainees who would be eligible to registering to vote and which detainees have special considerations.


Enhancing Your County BOE’s Awareness

    A few county boards may create barriers to registering pre-trial detainees by rejecting registrations that are completed in pencil or only processing absentee ballots the day of the election.

To gain the buy-in of your BOE, you might consider attending any of its open meetings, creating a coalition of members which include current board employees and setting up a meeting with both board employees and jail officials.

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    Through these meetings you can plan voter activities, which may not initially target the jail, but creates more awareness for registrars and potential registrants. These collaborations will foster a mutual understanding of how the registration and election process at the jail would proceed.

    The BOE may eventually agree to the most important aspect of detainee voting which is bringing absentee ballots to detainees along with the pens or styluses needed to vote, overseeing the voting process, and collecting the voting materials to bring back to the BOE.


Planning to Enter the Jail

When you are granted permission to enter the jail, you will most likely need to clear any materials with the warden and work with county board employees, if necessary, to accompany you.

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    You will also need to plan how you will move within the facility and what space you will use to meet with detainees, though this will probably be set up by the jail officials. You could plan to work by level, individually within each pod or gather detainees within a common room. At times, detainees are housed in cubicles and pods which come equipped with tables and chairs. Other times, detainees have cells with bunk beds and no tables. The best practice is to use a space where each volunteer can meet individually with the eligible detainees and register them; do not meet with detained persons in groups of two or more as this will detract from each person’s privacy.

    Always follow the corrections officer’s protocol, keep the process simple and conversations brief.

    The registration and absentee ballot request forms should be brought to your county BOE within ten days from when you entered the jail. Alert the BOE when bringing these forms so they know when to expect them.


Payment for Extra Corrections Officers

While having a handful of volunteers complete a voter registration drive within the jail will not require officials to step up security, any more than ten volunteers will necessitate having extra correctional officers on hand to ensure a safe and orderly environment.

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    This additional security will also come with extra costs and may dissuade some wardens from letting in a significant number of volunteers. However, your drive will improve voter turnout and participation and you should communicate this to the warden.


Other Process Alternatives

Volunteers will enter the jail as a group and be escorted by correctional officers.

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    Each group can have a binder of information, in addition to the standard registration and absentee ballot forms, which contain the relevant Ohio statutes on voting, FAQs from your county BOE’s and the secretary of state’s websites, and copies of a zip code directory. (Note: For homeless detainees who need an address for their voter registration form you can provide them with a list of local shelters.) An experienced person from your group, such as a seasoned volunteer or the jail’s staff person, can choose to enter one block and announce an invitation to register voters. After the announcement you can briefly discuss felony disenfranchisement and voting rights.

    Volunteers can work in three two-hour shifts over a series of days or in longer blocks of times, depending on the jail’s rules, regulations and staff schedules. Shifts should be set in the six weeks prior to the voter registration deadline to capture the largest audience and identify detainees who will most likely be detained during the election.

    Registration forms can be scanned to gather information on the total number of registrations completed by your coalition, and to verify that these registrations have been accepted and voters were sent their voter registration cards, and, if applicable, their ballots. Before turning forms into the county board verify they are accurate, and if problems arise, work with the county jail to quickly locate those voters and correct the mistake or error.

    Also in advance of entering the jail, you can ask the Sheriff or Warden to compile a list of individuals who are pre-trial detainees, individuals convicted of a misdemeanor, or awaiting release in the coming days and weeks. This will enable you to identify which detainees are eligible to register to vote and move more efficiently in the jail.


If Detainees Choose Not to Register

If detainees are eligible to vote but choose not to register, you can still provide them with forms and educational materials about re-enfranchisement in case they change their minds.

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    You can also leave additional forms with the jail’s social work staff or correctional officers. Some jails will be amenable to leaving posters or flyers about voting rights and posting them in the detainees’ living quarters.

    Also avoid disrupting detainees’ recreational activities or permitting corrections officers to do this as well. Detainees might become flustered with any volunteer or corrections officer intruding on their activities because they are only granted a few hours for television and recreation per day.


Detainees without Valid Identification

    Several detainees may have lost their identification during their arrest, booking, or processing.

All detainees’ valuables and identification are held in the jail’s property room, but between an inmates’ transferal from booking to jail these items may not be properly stored.

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    Knowing that some detainees may not have identification during the registration drive will be important for volunteers instructing detainees on how they can vote. If detainees do not have any identification, volunteers can recommend detainees vote by mail, where they will only need to produce their driver’s license number (which begins with two alphabet letters followed by six numbers) OR the last four digits of their social security number.

    Voters will not need to physically produce their driver’s license or social security card to write the numbers from these cards on the ballot envelope. Detainees should also know they will need to sign the ballot envelope before returning it to their county BOE. If a detainee will still be incarcerated inside of the jail and will require the assistance of two county board of employees, they can provide the last four digits of their social security number. These requirements may change after publication of this toolkit, so be sure to check current laws regarding identification.


No to Staples: Security Measures to Consider

    Security can be very tight at many jails and even the most innocuous detail like a stapled pamphlet can create a problem.

When completing registrations, you should consider any part of the process that may violate the jail’s policies, such as:

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  • All voter registration and absentee ballot request forms should be simple, one-page forms that do not require staples.
  • Minimize handling too many items in the jail by writing concise and succinct voting materials.
  • If you have additional materials you would like to leave with detainees consider packaging them into tri-fold pamphlets.
  • You can choose to create your own materials, but ensure these materials can be understood by a lay audience.
  • Consider using the ACLU of Ohio’s voter registration cards and criminal convictions cards when educating voters about completing or updating their registration, where and how to vote, and their voting rights if they have a criminal conviction.
  • Any materials entering the county jail must meet the warden’s approval, and in many instances, local, state, and federal security.


Distributing Materials

In the event you are unable to distribute your voting materials in person, you can ask to have them handed out through the canteen on more than a single occasion.

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    Canteens are locations where detainees can place orders for provisions they cannot obtain in jail such as some food items or phone cards. Pamphlets and voting materials can be distributed this way and will have a higher probability of reaching more detainees. The materials can also be packaged with classroom materials if detainees are taking general education courses or specialized jail programs to improve their employability.


Replacing Materials

In some jails, voting materials may run out.

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    One reason for this is the lack of direct contact between your coalition and the jail’s administrator or the facility. When you are unable to monitor the supply of materials in the jail, you could periodically contact the warden or your advocate to ask that the materials be replenished. A good idea is to not inundate the warden with these requests because it could strain your relationship with jail administrators. For instance, you could ask that registration forms and absentee ballot requests be placed in or near boxes that are used for the distribution of complaint forms. Or, if you have been granted special access to the jail you can bring materials with you on each visit.


Track Your Success

To the greatest extent possible, track how many voters your group registers, and how many of those individuals actually vote. This data will help you measure your success and provide baseline comparisons in the future.


DISCLAIMER – The information on this website is not, nor is it intended to be, an exhaustive overview of Ohio’s voting laws. Before beginning any jail voting initiative please review the Ohio Revised Code or the Ohio Secretary of State’s website at If you have been disenfranchised and you need legal help, please submit a compliant for review on our Legal Help page.

Back to Voting in Jail: An Organizer’s Toolkit.

Voting In Jail