S1: I’m wondering if you can describe to me what Election Day is going to look like for you, like are you going to go to the polls on Election Day?
S2: Oh, first time voting. You think I will let them get away that easy?
S1: I’m going to it’s pretty hard to miss the joy in doing Combers voice when you talk to him about the election. This is the first year Duane is gonna be able to cast a ballot. He says if he had his way, he’d drive a Cadillac to the polls.
S3: You know what I’m actually going to do, I’m well recorded on my phone because it’s really going to be nice. Just roll up. Yes, roll up, going do the vote. Have someone who’s there, you know, just film me doing this, because this to me is monumental.
S1: If I told, like, 18 year old you that you were this hyped for voting, would he have believed you?
S3: No, no, no, no, not at all.
S1: Dwayne is 50 now. Part of the reason his younger self might not have understood this excitement is that he was living a pretty different life back then. Dwayne spent most of his adulthood incarcerated, watching elections play out with his fellow inmates in the prison law library.
S2: And me now actually getting that opportunity. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I notice not only am I going to be smiling, the walls that was in that law library called me smiling.
S1: I wanted to talk to Dwayne because I just want to channel his enthusiasm all the way to Election Day.
S4: It’s the same reason we asked all of you to call in and share the ways you’ve been preparing to make your vote count this election season by Marion Barry.
S5: I’ve never voted for a Democrat before and I’ve written like 100 letter I am mailing. And we decided to hold a ballot party and see everyone come out and make sure my voice is heard.
S4: You guys really delivered on that, by the way. But this year, when the smallest of margins could tip the scales, new voters like Duane are in high demand. Both parties are racing to register them, tallying them up as evidence that their party is building a mandate. So over the next few weeks, we’re going to focus on these first timers, talk about what’s motivating them, because for people like Duane, who’ve only recently gotten the right to vote, a lot’s on the line on November 3rd. Are you nervous about the outcome?
S3: A little, but I know there has to be done because we can’t afford another four years like this. We just went through. It’s going to be hard on black and brown people.
S6: Today on the show, when your first time at the polls feels like the most consequential election of your lifetime, I’m Mary Harris.
S7: You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S1: There are a lot of D’Wayne commerce out there this year, since 2016, more than a million current and formerly imprisoned Americans have regained the right to vote. One advocate called this constituency an invisible army. Duane’s story starts in Syracuse, New York. His family moved there so he could be close to an uncle, but when his uncle got sick, Duane felt like he had to start fending for himself.
S8: We had to create ways to be able to eat. I used to go to an old place called Chicago Market and carry bags and get pay quarters and see someone come out of the bunch of grocery bags. I miss. Do you need any help? Take the bags out to help load them up in the car or him in this car and they give us a quarter, 50 cents or a dollar. And those was to us a lot because we buy cheese and baloney and bring it home. So I had to create ways and that started. Me, too, hustlin. That’s the beginning of hustling back at my time.
S1: So how did you end up in the game in 84?
S8: It became a boom all over in our community. The crack cocaine had hit people, was making so much fast money that, you know, you start seeing people are all kind of fancy cars or kind of fancy bikes going all kind of fancy parties. That’s what the time was. So one of my baby mother’s brother introduced me to it and I basically took off from there.
S1: Dwayne started selling crack around the neighborhood. The local newspapers called him a kingpin, but he says the way he got caught, looking back, seems random. On the way back from a shopping trip to Manhattan, he and some friends got singled out.
S8: I will never forget this. The police officer was sitting on top of his car. He seeing four black people, me driving out, got the car, cruise control of fifty five, the speed limit.
S1: You’re like, I’m not getting pulled over.
S8: It was like old Dukes of Hazzard show. He throws his food down, throws his coffee run and jump in the car like we don’t do something in front of me. And we look and act like we couldn’t believe it. Like a movie. He came straight down and pulled us over on any other day.
S1: The traffic stop might have been nothing, but it turned out one of Dwayne’s friends had drugs on him. The guy fled. The officer got caught, ultimately did jail time. But while he was in there, he informed on Duane in exchange for a more lenient sentence. You are sentenced to life plus. Right. Do you do you remember when that sentence came down?
S8: Yes. Yes. I was sitting at the table playing cards with four people, was playing spades. I knew they were coming to get me to sentence me. When they came to get me, I said, OK, I left. Lt was not everybody playing cards. My took my place. They just knew I was going to get sentenced. So I left when I received a sentence, came back, got back on the car gang start playing. So we are playing is a little late. Wow. Three or four whatever. And then they came on the TV that Duane Colmer, you know, drug kingpin on the South Side had just received and they said my sentence. So everybody they mouth drop because I was so normal.
S9: It just felt like and I honestly, this is a. this is so honest, when they send to me, I felt like a relief. It just felt relief. That’s why I was playing cards like that. It was so I can say now I can begin to fight.
S1: And that’s what it felt like, you know, I mean, they’re still using the word kingpin when they talk about you in the papers, it sounds like you’re saying that’s a misnomer.
S9: It’s it’s that. It’s definitely that. But the whole you know, I’m I’m at the point I’m at peace with it. OK, all right. But there are really deserve that type of sentence. Look at the amount of drugs that they found. Look look at the case that I really deserved that type of sentence. No violence, no nothing. Never in my life I’ve been no violent person that I really deserve that kind of draconian sentence is, is the question that I want to always go before Congress and say they really need to consider the type of sentence that they give to people. That sentence was draconian.
S1: Duane got sent to federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Eventually, he made a friend who told him to check out the prison’s law library and it quickly became a kind of home. He spent as much time as he could studying, looking to see if there was any way he could modify his sentence. I heard a lot of incarcerated people talk about being inside as a kind of political awakening. How did that work for you?
S9: When did you start paying attention to the politics in the outside world, in the law library, when you get all your motion denied, deny everyone in law library and all their motion to deny all the conservative judges.
S8: They just was denying everything. We wasn’t getting nothing at the law library. And some of us go over there from 8:00 in the morning to 8:00 at night trying to file a motion and petitions and help each other and try to really, you know, get issues granted. And we’re going we’re dealing with like 12 circuits. So we’re all putting our minds together and we know the laws and it’s still not personal.
S9: And you seeing one, the different presidents come in, what their conversation is, what they’re going to do when they come in, that’s when, you know, that’s the only thing we could do is hope that the outside world able to put the right one in there to help us.
S1: On the inside, D’Wayne realized all the ways politics could impact him directly. Presidents appoint judges, judges decide cases. Presidents also shepherd legislation. A year before D’Wayne was put on trial. President Clinton had worked to pass the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The EPA, among other things, EPA gave people who are incarcerated just one year to file a petition challenging their incarceration. This was a major tool a prisoner like Duane could use, but only if he could get through these new restrictions.
S2: Now, you talk about people who coming from the street who don’t have no education because they are so drug use drugs, shot people or shot at people. And, you know, that tension that they come up with is going to take a year to even get that off. You you actually them to come in here and file a motion and know what to file, how to file it in one year.
S9: That’s impossible. If you don’t, then you’re all done listening to you talk.
S1: It sounds like you went into the prison system. And very quickly realized how much. Elections could impact your life because these decisions about how much time you had to file an appeal, they were impacting the people around you every day, right away.
S2: And I’m looking at the emotion and I’m helping the individual with do petitions. I mean, how the older people like who can’t read or write and like lawyers doing so wrong and they don’t understand 10, 15 years later, I’m telling them what the law is on death and they can’t get in because it’s a DPA.
S9: And that would really hurt us. And, you know, that’s what made us pay attention to how important it was for the president, you know, because the president was changing the shape of the laws. That was as they was coming in.
S1: Did it bother you to not be able to participate politically?
S9: Yeah, it bothered me because, you know, I felt like you got all the men and jail want to vote.
S1: You know, you watched Trump campaign from behind bars. I’m curious how you thought about him, because it’s pretty clear to me that you were pretty politically active and interested by the time he began to run.
S9: Yes, he was very gracious. But I think at the time people was fed up with the Clintons. They were fed up with the Bushes, the Clintons. And that’s how I think he slid in there.
S1: Yeah, I can hear your frustration because you clearly were frustrated with Clinton from before to.
S3: And then, you know, they’re using this super predator things to to criminalize, still criminalizing and locking us up at a mass amount of time.
S9: And even Clinton, Hillary trying to justify when Bill Clinton had admitted minute the Black Caucus that it was wrong, she tried to justify it. So anybody want to hear it no more. So they was willing to vote for anybody so far because of the frustration.
S10: We’ll be back after the break.
S1: As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fought out the 2016 election, D’Wayne was fighting his own battle for sentence relief when he wasn’t in a law library, he was in the mailroom sending out dozens of letters to legal entities and advocacy groups, pleading his case. Meanwhile, President Obama was taking steps in an effort to stem the growth of mass incarceration before his second term was up. That included granting over a thousand commutations, including about 500 people with life sentences.
S11: Obama had already started letting mass amount of people out. So all of us that fit that criteria started to follow him because I used to write everybody under the sun because I was.
S9: To me, I was done totally wrong and I was not going to let him leave without even saying at least denied. So I know he hurt me.
S1: How many letters were you writing then? Like a week. A month?
S9: Oh, I will go to the mail room at least three times a week at least.
S1: So tell me about the moment you knew that.
S12: The commutation was happening at that 9:00 a.m. when I was going to law library to actually meet someone to help them with the case because they kept asking me, kept asking me. So I said, OK, I’ll meet you there in the morning. As I was going out the way here, the door is a seal and the seal says at one o’clock you got to go to the Senate office. Was that usual? No, it’s totally unusual. And then you tell someone at one o’clock, I usually sing straight to you till I was right then and there. I mean, you did something wrong. So I’m wondering. It just bothered me and I come back and I asked, why did you say one? He said this one time they call for you to come see him. So I said, OK, so I started. And when I went up there to meet the guy, I told the guy, I said, I want lie. I want to tell some of you all back all your paperwork in case I want to go on a shooting. I don’t know what happened.
S1: So you were worried you were about to go to solitary?
S12: Yes. So what I wound up doing all that one o’clock, you see all our officers line all the way up to the assistant wardens office. So I’m looking I’m nervous. You know, I don’t want to talk in that way. And it’s different from whatever. So I don’t really think I’m really nervous. Like, I are really gone this time. I don’t know. What I don’t is I can’t, you know, fathom what I did. I don’t know. So it’s over. The phone was over at a table, so they actually sat down and see, attorney, I want to talk to you and I can hear her a little bit of a thing. Has he come in yet? So I go in there, I pick up the phone, say hello. And she said she actually said, I’m fine because I’m still kind of like nervous. She said he will be announced on national TV that he’s free you.
S1: How did the room react? Because it sounds like there were a lot of people there.
S12: Yeah, it was. And and I said I was in such a shock that I said, I’ll call you back. And everybody burst out laughing. So it was you know, it was shocking, but it felt good.
S11: And you just they cheered for me when I left. It was like a football game or basketball game. The whole entire dorm cheer for me. Just think about it.
S1: Twenty, twenty one years, eight months after twenty one years behind bars, Dwayne finally returned home.
S9: And that’s when it also hit me. I need the vote. I got this opportunity. Now I need a vote because someone is making having that much power over your life. You have to listen to them at least before they go in there. Yeah. If someone to have this much power over your life, you you definitely want to be able to have a say in who it is.
S1: I know when you went in, you had some kids. I wonder if you talk to your kids now about voting.
S11: Yeah, I talk to all my daughters. I talk to them all the time. It’s so important to vote now is so important about what’s going on today.
S1: Are they like dad or do you think that they may see it?
S11: They see it because I always explain the stories I had to go through, the things that I had to do, you know, and I’m still out here pushing it now. Vote is so important to vote.
S1: I wonder if you feel like you’re voting partially for the people you know who can’t vote.
S11: I definitely am. And it’s a whole bunch of men that’s in there who didn’t get retroactive, who got caught with these Simsim ascertains, who can’t get no help, was still in there and who got no retroactive who still in there. And all these politicians, as I continue to get these votes, that’s not helping anyone is still in there. You know, we all made mistakes. I just don’t like the way that I mean, I love the way I left. And I’m the perfect one to be out here to push for them. And that’s what I’m here for. And I won’t push and I’m all pushed all the way to the end for them. And they know that I’m doing it and they know I’m doing it for them.
S4: Dwayne, thank you so much for making the time to talk to me. You’re welcome. Have fun on Election Day.
S11: I will. I definitely will.
S4: Dwayne Comber is a first time voter in Syracuse, New York. Leading up to Tuesday, November 3rd, the what next team is going to be bringing you stories from first time voters just like Dwayne. So if you liked what you heard today, tell a friend, be sure to check back with her feet leading up to Election Day itself. There’s another way you can participate. You can leave us a voicemail. We have been getting tons of messages from all of you telling us how you’re planning to make your vote count this election season. One listener called in to explain how convincing her husband that his vote counts has been a really personal journey.
S13: Hey, Mary, my name is Mary, too. I’m 54 and so is my husband, and he’s never voted in the whole of his life. We’ve always bickered about it and he’s always stood firm in his belief that his vote doesn’t count. So this year, I decided that the thing to do was to tell him that the only thing that I wanted for my birthday was for him to register and vote. And he could continue to believe that his vote didn’t count if that’s what he wanted to do. But as a personal favor to me, as a woman who he loves, that’s what I wanted for my birthday. And he did. He voted this year. And I consider that to be a success. So I thought I’d share that with anybody who’s married to someone or love someone who doesn’t want to vote but wants to make them happy. Thank you.
S4: Whatever it takes to get it done. I love getting these voicemails. Keep them coming. You can leave one at two zero two eight eight eight two five eight eight.
S1: All right. That’s our show.
S4: What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewett and Alan Ashworth’s We Have Help and Spiritual Guidance from Alicia Montgomery and Allison. I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back here tomorrow.