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Since 2016, more than a million currently and formerly imprisoned Americans have regained the right to vote. One of them is 50-year-old Dewayne Comer, who lives in Syracuse, New York, and is going to be able to cast a ballot for the first time this year. He spent most of his adulthood incarcerated, watching elections play out with his fellow inmates in the prison law library, until President Barack Obama commuted his sentence shortly before leaving office. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, as part of our series First Timers, I spoke with Comer about his political engagement, and what it’s like when your first time at the polls is for most consequential election of your lifetime. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Are you nervous about the electin’s outcome?
Dewayne Comer: A little, but I know there has to be done because we can’t afford another four years like this. It’s gonna be hard on Black and brown people.
How did you end up incarcerated?
In ’84, crack cocaine had hit all over our community. People was making so much fast money that you started seeing people buying all kind of fancy cars, all kinds of fancy bikes, throwing all kind of fancy parties. One of my baby mother’s brothers introduced me to it, and I basically took off from there.
I will never forget the police officer sitting on top of his car. He seen four black people, me driving, and I got the car in cruise control at 55—the speed limit. He throws his food down, throws his coffee, runs, and jumps in a car. Like we done did something in front of him. And we look at it like we couldn’t believe it. He came straight down there and pulled us over.
One of your friends had drugs on him and fled but got caught and ultimately did jail time. While in there, he informed on you in exchange for a more lenient sentence. You were sentenced to life plus. They were still using the word kingpin when they talked about you in the local papers. You say that’s a misnomer.
It’s definitely that. I’m at the point where I’m at peace with it. But did I really deserve that type of sentence? Look at the amount of drugs that they found. Look at the case. Did I really deserve that type of sentence? No violence, no nothing in my life. Did I really deserve that kind of draconian sentence? That’s the question I want to always go before Congress and ask, to say they really need to consider the type of sentence they give people.
You were sent to federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I’ve heard a lot of incarcerated people talk about being inside as a kind of political awakening. How did that work for you? When did you start paying attention to politics in the outside world?
In the law library, when you get all your motions denied, all the conservative judges—they just was denying everything. We wasn’t getting nothing at the law library. And some of us were going near from 8 in the morning to 8 at night, trying to file a motion and petitions and help each other and try to really get issues granted. We’re dealing with like 12 circuits. We’re all putting ours mind together and reading all the laws, and they still not passing them. And you’re seeing when the different presidents come in, what their conversation is, what they’re gonna do when they come in. That’s the only thing we could do, hope that the outside world was able to put the right one in there to help us.
It sounds like you went into the system and quickly realized how much elections could affect your life. Because these decisions about how much time you had to file an appeal, they affected people around you every day, right?
Right. I’m helping individuals do petitions. I’m here helping older people who can’t read and write—lawyers were doing them so wrong and they didn’t understand. Ten, fifteen years later, I’m telling them what the lawyer done did. And they can’t get in because there’s AEDPA, and that would really hurt us. That’s what made us pay attention to how important it was for the president, because presidents was changing the shape of the laws as they were coming in.
Did it bother you to not be able to participate politically?
Yeah, it bothered me because I felt like you got all the men in jail who want to vote.
You watched Trump campaign. I’m curious how you thought about him.
He was very racist. But I think at the time people was fed up with the Clintons, and the Bushes. That’s how I think he slid in there.
You clearly were frustrated with Clinton from before too.
They were using this “superpredator” thing to criminalize and lock us up at a mass amount. Hillary Clinton even tried to justify it. So they didn’t want to hear it no more—they was willing to vote for anybody except her because of the frustration.
As Trump and Clinton fought out the 2016 election, you were fighting for sentence relief. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama was taking steps in an effort to stem the growth of mass incarceration before his second term was up. That included granting over 1,000 commutations, including about 500 people with life sentences.
Obama had already started letting a massive amount of people out. So all of us that would fit that criteria started to follow. I used to write everybody under the sun. To me, I was done totally wrong, and I was not gonna let him leave without even saying anything.
How many letters were you writing then?
Oh, I’d go to the mailroom at least three times a week.
After 21 years behind bars, you finally returned home.
Yes. And that’s when it hit me: I need the vote. I got this opportunity. Now I need the vote because someone has that much power over your life, you have to listen to them at least before they go in there. If someone will have this much power over your life, you definitely want to be able to have a say in who it is.
I know when you went in, you had some kids. I wonder if you talk to your kids now about voting.
Yeah, I talk to all my daughters. It’s so important to vote now. They see it because I always explain the stories I had to go through, the things I had to do, and I’m still out here pushing the vote.
I wonder if you feel like you’re voting partially for the people who can’t vote.
I definitely am. There’s a whole bunch of men that’s in there who didn’t get retroactive, who got caught with these sins, can’t get no hope, who ask me things. You know, we all made mistakes. I’m the perfect one to be out here to push for them. I’m all pushing all the way to the end for them. They know that I’m doing it, and they know I’m doing it for them.
I’m gonna record it on my phone because this is really gonna be nice. I’ll have someone who’s there to film me doing this, because this to me is monumental. Now I’ve actually been given that opportunity, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Not only am I going to be smiling, but everyone in that law library is going to be smiling.
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