Jurisprudence

What It’s Like to Vote From Prison

For the first time, D.C. is letting people vote from prison.

Overhead shot of a man in an orange jumpsuit filling out a ballot at a table
Inmates vote in the city’s election at the D.C. jail on March 26, 2014. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

It’s been 17 years since Antonio Lancaster was sent hundreds of miles from his District of Columbia home to federal prison for armed robbery. Locked away at 19, Lancaster lost his right to vote before he had ever used it. But this year, D.C. lawmakers passed a bill to allow people to vote while incarcerated, so Lancaster will get to do what few else in his Kansas prison can. He said the other men in his facility are jealous.

“When we talk about it, they’re like, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’ ” Lancaster said in a phone interview. “I believe that everyone, and I mean everyone, deserves their right.”

In July, the D.C. Council passed emergency criminal justice reform legislation that included a provision ending the practice of stripping voting rights from people convicted of a felony, a measure the city had considered for more than a year. Before D.C., just Maine and Vermont—the country’s whitest states—allowed their citizens to vote while incarcerated.

The addition of D.C. marks a significant step forward for the movement to end felony disenfranchisement. While a growing number of states have restored rights to people who have completed their sentences or who are currently on parole, currently incarcerated people have largely been left behind. This disenfranchisement particularly affects Black communities’ political power, as the U.S. prison population is disproportionately Black. In D.C., that reality was stark. If D.C. were a state, it would be the nation’s Blackest, and Black people make up 95 percent of the federal prisoners from D.C. The city also disenfranchises an outsize number of people because it has a higher incarceration rate than any state in the country.

Councilmember Robert C. White Jr., who first introduced the Restore the Vote Amendment, said the bill is an effort to make the electorate more representative of the city. According to the D.C. Board of Elections, since the bill passed, around 400 out of an estimated 2,600 eligible federal inmates have registered to vote this year.

Lancaster, who is Black, described being able to participate in the presidential election as a momentous occasion. Lancaster told Slate he will be voting for Joe Biden, although he agrees with President Donald Trump on “certain things when it comes to business.” He said he has no political party but generally agrees with Democrats, unless they are calling to defund the police. He fears for a world in which the police are not present to protect people.

Lancaster said he got an “I Voted” sticker when he received his registration application and put it inside his favorite short story collection. “I’ve had that book since my first year in,” he said, “so that book isn’t going anywhere.”

Because D.C. has no federal prison of its own, residents convicted of felonies like Lancaster are sent to federal prisons hundreds of miles from their home. Some, like Joel Castón, spend the final period of their sentence in the D.C. jail. Castón said in a phone interview that he and the other men in his unit had been eagerly awaiting Mayor Muriel Bowser’s signature on the bill to restore their voting rights.

Castón, a 44-year-old grandfather of two who was incarcerated as a teen for murder, voted for the first time by absentee ballot earlier this month. He said he’s an avid news watcher, so it felt great to be able to vote for the candidates and issues he follows closely and often debates with other men in his unit. After D.C. changed its disenfranchisement policy, he said he was mailed a registration application. Under the terms of D.C.’s new legislation, the D.C. Board of Elections will be required in January to provide voter registration materials and absentee ballots to D.C. residents who are in the Department of Corrections or Bureau of Prisons custody, although some local advocates said the rollout of that plan has been complicated by the fact that the city doesn’t keep a comprehensive list of its residents in federal custody.

Castón feels the D.C. jail has effectively communicated the law change to eligible voters.

“This is the first time I’m saying this, but the facility has done a wonderful job informing the population about their right to vote,” he said. In his unit, jail administrators make announcements on the PA system throughout the day, and there are posters with the information, Castón said. “They went beyond the call of duty,” he said. “They pulled out all the bells and whistles to get the message out.”

Castón will be casting his absentee ballot for Biden, a vote he said was more based on Biden’s tone and style than enthusiasm for his policies.

He is most concerned with criminal justice reform issues, as they affect him directly right now. He’s been disappointed in the federal government lately, noting Trump’s First Step Act was going in the right direction but wasn’t nearly progressive enough. Still, he said he’s pleased to see reform “sweeping the nation right now,” and “D.C. has taken the vanguard in a lot of these measures.”

The national movement to eliminate Jim Crow–era felony disenfranchisement laws has gained significant traction in recent years. Since the 2018 election, six states have restored the right to vote to some people convicted of felonies. Three of them restored rights for anyone who is not currently incarcerated, and California also may soon pass a ballot measure to restore rights to people on parole. The Sentencing Project released a report this month finding a total of 5.17 million people disenfranchised for felony convictions nationwide, down almost 15 percent from 6.11 million in 2016.

But until D.C., efforts to altogether abolish felony disenfranchisement have not been successful, despite proposals in a few state legislatures and Democratic primary candidates for the first time debating the idea last year. Ultimately, many concluded there should be more conversations about the issue.

Advocates for expanding voting rights argue that allowing people in prison to vote better prepares them for a successful release and reintegration into their communities. When the D.C.-based Council for Court Excellence conducted an analysis of D.C. offenders in Bureau of Prisons custody in July, the group found that half of the 3,221 individuals incarcerated would be released some time in the next two years. Many of those people would be out within six months.

Despite their short road to returning to society, incarcerated people told Slate they feel disconnected from their community.

“Sometimes when it comes to certain things, D.C. inmates are really forgotten about,” Lancaster said, explaining that directives from the Bureau of Prisons or changes in federal sentencing policy don’t apply to people from D.C.

Tara Libert, executive director of the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a Washington nonprofit that works to engage prisoners and returned offenders, said those feelings are legitimate, given how removed inmates from D.C. are from their city. Allowing these men and women to vote can make them feel more invested when they go home.

“It’s enormous,” she said. “It’s probably the single greatest thing you can do to send a loud, clear message that you are part of the city, we care about you, we value what you think, and you are an equal part of this democracy.”

Lancaster and Castón agreed that being able to vote prepares them for a future on the outside. For Castón, that could be as soon as the end of this year, thanks to a D.C. law allowing people sentenced as children to get out of prison early.

“What other states can learn is that if you’re allowing your incarcerated population to function within this democratic process, you are actually teaching them how to be citizens,” he said. “The hope is that once you get into the practice of doing that and once you transition back into society, you will continue that practice.”

Since he mailed in his ballot, Castón said, he has been wearing his “I Voted” sticker every day.

“I wish you could see me,” he said. “I have it on my shirt. I wear it like a badge of pride.”

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