When we passed Act 636, we restored voting rights to at least 40,000 Louisianans on probation on parole. We fought for the opportunity to prove that our votes and voices as formerly incarcerated people (FIP) are a force to be reckoned with. We hope you prove us right in Louisiana’s upcoming super-election, because more than 250 positions are up for reelection on Oct. 12. These positions have serious power over whether our criminal (in)justice system continues to work the way it was built--a revolving door to put mostly Black people behind bars--or is reformed to focus on real transformation. These are positions like the sheriff of your parish, your District Representative, your Senator, and the Governor of Louisiana. Each position has control over different parts of the system that have significantly impacted our lives, often for the worse. If you don’t quite believe in the power of your vote yet, we got you. Here are some of the many positions running and how they can either harm or help heal your future.
Senators and Representatives (AKA The Legislature)
No matter where in Louisiana you live--whether in Spearsville or New Orleans--you have Representatives and Senators up for reelection in your area. They make up Louisiana’s House of Representatives and Senate, respectively. Together, the 105 Representatives and 39 Senators of Louisiana have the power to push forward, vote against, edit, or pass every state bill about mass incarceration that we are concerned with. Because they vote on every bill they receive, electing even a few more legislators who are on our side can be enough to sway the vote in favor of liberation, making statewide change. Just last year, we saw this working multiple times. For example, we fought to eliminate the death penalty. With a few extra supporters in the State Senate, the bill moved further along than ever before. This shows progress on a notoriously divisive topic. We also had success advocating for the Truth in Sentencing bill. Based on the fact that 95% of people who have faced a conviction in Louisiana take a plea deal, and the majority of them don’t know the full consequences taking this deal, this bill mandated transparency. It obliged the prosecution to explain the true punishment involved with pleading guilty, including how it affects a convicted person’s access to housing, employment, and higher education. Thanks to the hard work of our members and allies--some of who testified in front of their elected officials--this bill passed! On Oct. 12, we can make more wins like this possible by electing Senators and Representatives who have a history or platform that supports prison reform.
The position of Louisiana Governor is also up for election on Oct. 12, which works closely with the state legislature. The governor can pass or veto any bill that the House and Senate has already approved. The governor also controls many other statewide institutions. For one, they appoint the Secretary of Corrections, who runs Louisiana’s Department of Corrections (DOC). They determine how facilities are managed, who’s hired, and total operations. Therefore, electing a governor who aligns with VOTE’s values allows us to trust they will appoint a Secretary that can reform the DOC from the inside out. Another important appointment the governor makes is each person on the Board of Pardons and Parole. Once you’re incarcerated, appealing to the board is one of the only ways you can get out. We need a board that is less punitive or more merciful, so we need to elect a governor who feels the same way.
The positions we’ve mentioned so far mostly have to do with statewide systemic change that affects people who have already been convicted. But, there are also positions up for election that determine whether or not someone is incarcerated in the first place. People on the school board, in policing systems, and in the court system all have seats open this election, and all influence whether someone is convicted and incarcerated.
On Oct. 12, seven seats of Louisiana’s top school board are up for election. To figure out why this matters, let’s follow the life of Devon, a Black, 17-year-old high school student living and learning in Jefferson Parish. Because of chronic stressors related to racism, a lack of financial resources, and more, Devon has depression and anxiety. Because he’s still learning to cope with these mental health struggles, he’s missed a lot of school. After two warnings for bad attendance, he’s called into the Principal's office and is put on a 3-day suspension, thus beginning the school-to-prison pipeline. While the school board doesn’t directly decide the fate of Devon, they do set the culture of the schools in their district, which indirectly affects him in a big way. The board makes decisions like whether or not there are police officers at a school, if there are time-out rooms that function like solitary confinement cells. They can encourage the administrators of the school to be more punishing, or use their resources to promote a positive learning environment, such as effective counseling programs, and restorative justice practices.
As Devon is walking home from his grandma’s house, a deputy working for the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish pulls up to check his ID. He let him know he’s out past curfew, which he didn’t know. Because of a long-history of racial bias and subsequent profiling in policing as well as other institutions, the deputy thinks Devon looks suspicious. He searches him for drugs. Already having a stressful week, Devon tries to explain to the deputy that he doesn’t have anything and just wants to go home. The deputy arrests Devon for what he perceives as resisting arrest. Devon gets brought to the local jail, where he is put behind bars for simply trying to get home. The sheriff who this deputy works for was elected. Like the school board, he can decide how punitive the people who work for him are--the very people who are often the first point of contact for those experiencing the (in)justice system. Sheriffs can decide how much they will follow or resist the history of stop-and-frisk. They can decide if their staff goes through implicit bias training. Since they also determine the number of beds in the local jail, Louisiana sheriffs have a clear stake in the number of arrests made. Some have taken pride in filling their jail to the brim, and our hope is that every sheriff elected on Oct. 12 feels the opposite. We want every sheriff to fight for change, as we do with the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. In the Coalition, we demand that the city makes good on its promise not to expand local jails and to remove people from the temporary detention center. If we elect sheriffs who are also committed to not filling all jail beds or building more facilities, we can decrease the amount of people who go on to be incarcerated. Finally, sheriffs also have the power to end pretrial detention, which is when innocent people are sitting in jail awaiting their trial because they are too poor to afford bail. This election, our Baton Rouge chapter is keeping our eye specifically on the sheriff races in East Baton Rouge, because right now their office jails people at a rate of 381 for every 100,000 residents. Almost 90% of those in jail are locked up because they are too poor to afford bail, yet the sheriff has the power to change that. Of course, while you aren’t able to vote on a sheriff outside of your parish, the sheriffs all over the state still matter to all of us. After all, where you get arrested is where you’re going to be put in jail, regardless of where you live or vote, so if you have any friends or family in nearby parishes, please encourage them to go vote, too.
After spending several nights in the Jefferson Parish Jail, a deputy handcuffs Devon and drives him to the courthouse where a local judge will decide his court date and bail amount. Whether Devon goes to trial or takes a plea deal, the judge will decide his sentence. The judges in Jefferson Parish are notoriously harsh, so Devon doesn’t have high hopes for having a bail amount to be able to pay, which would allow him to go home. He also doesn’t want to plead guilty since he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong, and as a 17-year-old, he doesn’t want to be in prison with adults. No matter the judge Devon faces, that person has been elected. It’s no secret that corruption has been a big part of the judge races in Louisiana, and Oct. 12 is a chance to change that reality. We should be electing trustworthy judges who work towards a more just Louisiana, not a more punitive one.
Because of all of the above and more, we want to make sure people all over the state are voting with mass incarceration reform on their minds on Oct. 12.
There are people running for office who will make the lives of people like Devon much better, or much worse. This is not because of the personal choices of the individuals involved, but because of the way the system works. There are people currently in office who don’t want to see people in our communities thrive. With our votes in unison, we can replace those people with elected officials who understand our value and will do their jobs based on our interests. Unlike the Electoral College in a presidential election, in local and statewide elections, your vote is one vote. It weighs the same as everyone else’s, no matter who you are. In other words, our vote is our voice. For more information on who’s running in your area, visit our partners, Know Your Vote.
Missed the registration deadline for Oct. 12? You can still register in time for the Nov. 16 run-off elections! Register by Oct. 15 in person or by mail, or online by Oct. 25 with a Louisiana ID. Remember, you CAN vote if:
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Put pryde to the sÏde.
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Now Ïz the tyme
Water our vÏnes
Keep relatÏons DÏvÏne
And embrance the sÏgns
as the chose’n people.
Now Ïz the t’yme
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ExercÏse yo lÏbetÏes
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And stand fÏrm
LÏke the Statue of LÏberty.
Cislah Smoot is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary. If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch! Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! We'll share the content with our network and always give credit to the artist(s) involved.
Over the weekend, VOTE and the Power Coalition officially launched our fall Get out the Vote (GOTV) efforts. Now, canvassers are hitting the streets, knocking on doors to encourage people to vote. At the same time, VOTE staff members continue to coordinate with probation and parole offices across the state, making sure everyone is up to speed with the Act 636, the new law that restored voting rights to at least 40,000 Louisianans on March 1.
The key to our efforts is helping each player help themselves, whether they are a volunteer, a probation and parole office employee, or a formerly incarcerated person trying to get registered. Our Shreveport Chapter Organizer Felicia Smith went to support Ms. Jessie, a volunteer from Lighthouse Ministry, who was doing voter registration at the local probation and parole office. Initially, the probation and parole staff were saying "we aren't clerical" and would not print out any Voter Eligibility Forms, which is the key piece of paperwork that people registering under Act 636 need. Eventually, Felicia convinced the staff to help. "Make a list, and we will get the forms to people," they told her. About an hour later, Mr. Nolan, the probation and parole office supervisor, showed up and got the forms. Of the 25 people listed, 13 were eligible, and they all got their paperwork completed that one day. Felicia is staying in close contact with Ms. Jessie, who has been back several times to register even more people.
Over in uptown New Orleans, on Thursday night our superstar member Earl Hagans will lead a meeting at 6pm at Rosenwald Recreation Center, 1120 S. Broad St. Earl's goal is to listen to the local needs of his community, and engage them in his own GOTV efforts.
Though our work has not been without administrative problems--raising crucial concerns about voter suppression--we will keep moving forward. In addition to our canvassing initiative, we have yard signs posted in neutral grounds, billboards in prominent intersections throughout the greater New Orleans area, and a how-to registration video that is being shared far and wide.
Our amazing teams in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Shreveport are going full force just in time for the upcoming voter registration deadlines. In order to vote in Louisiana's Oct. 12 super-election, where many positions that directly affect the fate of mass incarceration are open, people have to register in person by the end of TOMORROW! While the online deadline to register isn't until Sept. 21, we encourage anyone with a conviction to register in person since there is additional paperwork to submit. Call us at 504-571-9599 for help, or email us at email@example.com.