No one enters life all bad or all good.
That is mostly defined by your circumstances, your situations, your hood.
You may look at a precious baby and think this isn't so.
But one day you tell them to come here, who teaches the baby to say no?
Certain things are embedded into our DNA that sparks virtuousness.
Some are deleterious, iniquitous, ranconous, and maliciousness.
Coincidentally, there are other virtues that speaks of a contrary nature of our DNA.
This is a proven fact whether scientific, spiritual, or evolutionary.
These are nobleness, trust-worthiness, genuine-ness, and benevolence.
These characteristics are intertwined in a molecular strain of importance.
Your cell nuclei of heredity will not change.
It has little bearing if you're a mad scientist, Einstein's genius, or straight-jacket derange.
These things become a byproduct of abuse, poverty, and addictions.
It takes over life's meeting from salutations to benedictions.
The streets can make you heartless, conniving, and mean.
The home can make you lovable, respectful, so fresh-so clean.
Every experience you face builds one characteristic and depletes another, which can't be dismissed.
Life dealt me five of a different, I turned it into a straight flush because I was born for this!
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media, always give credit to the artist(s) involved, and cover the costs of submission. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Eyba Brown is currently incarcerated at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center.
Last Tuesday, more than 16,000 communities throughout the nation participated in the 35th annual Night Out Against Crime. Historically, this annual event has been an opportunity for local neighborhoods and law enforcement to come together in the name of crime prevention. VOTE and our sister organization, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ), both know that we cannot prevent crime without also addressing its root causes including, but not limited to: a lack of financial stability, a lack of resources for mental health care, over-policing in communities of color, and mass incarceration. That’s why this year we partnered to put on a celebration that was not only anti-crime, but pro-healing. VOTE members, CSSJ members, and passers by all came together in Central City, New Orleans, to break bread, enjoy music and entertainment, and talk about what healing really looks like.
“To me, healing looks like people coming together and forgiving,” says CSSJ member Dominique Jones. “We have to move forward and lean on God.” Many others at the event echoed Jones’ sentiments about forgiveness, too. Angela Thompson lost her son to gun violence more than three years ago. Almost immediately, she asked to speak to the young man who killed her son. Having seen the horrendous impacts of mass incarceration many times before, she just wanted to talk to him to understand why he did what he did, not to punish him or get him locked up.
“It’s not always easy to break the vicious cycles of retaliation,” she says. “But I’m doing it. When it gets really hard, I just breathe and pray, breathe and pray.”
Both Angela and New Orleans’ CSSJ Chapter Organizer Ariel Jeanjacques have met resistance for trying to approach harm differently. The criminal legal system can’t understand why survivors of crime don’t want the people who harmed them to sit behind bars for the rest of their lives.
“The system is using survivors as puppets to do what they want,” says Ariel. “But they’re not the ones who have really been affected--they haven't been through it. They're persuading survivors to lock people up instead of putting in real efforts to end the cycle of abuse and harm.”
Proponents of mass incarceration aren’t the only ones who don’t fully understand the work of CSSJ, though. Other survivors in their communities who are still angry and bitter can’t see how people like Angela and Ariel have compassion in their hearts.
One of the many ways Ariel tries to bring survivors into her network and help them see things differently is by sharing her own story. Several years ago, she called the police, thinking they would help protect her from her ex-partner, who was abusive. Instead, they fell in line with the history of law enforcement not taking survivors seriously at best, or blaming and criminalizing them at worst. She was arrested and later imprisoned. She tells younger people that they could face this kind of systemic violence, too, but also that they can be a voice against it.
“I just meet people where they’re at,” she says. “At CSSJ we say ‘from healing to action,’ because losing a child is something you never fully get over, but also it’s not healthy or helpful to sit and drown in your sorrows when you can start to heal and turn that into action.”
That phrase--from healing to action--really resonated for a new CSSJ member, Sophie, who also lost her son to gun violence. Tuesday’s event was a first for her. For many years, she was sad and resentful. Because of that, Sophie didn’t get involved. She and Ariel lived in the same housing development for many years, though, so they stayed in touch and checked in from time to time. Now Sophie is ready to do anything she can to prevent the cycle of crime and hurt.
Similarly, Felicia, a Florida resident, was shot 13 times while sleeping at her childhood friend’s house. Her friend and his 12-year-old son were both killed. For a long time, she only had hate in her heart because the person who shot her was someone she grew up with, and she hadn’t done anything except try to sleep. Aswald Thomas, the Managing Director for CSSJ, counseled Felicia for almost four years. One day, she called him and said “hating the man who shot me isn’t making me feel any better. I need to cross over. I could’ve died that day, too, but I didn’t. I have a purpose. I’m here to make a difference.” She’s now a CSSJ Chapter Organizer in Florida.
Addressing and preventing harm without relying on mass incarceration is a slow process. But as Felicia’s story shows us, it’s worth it, and it works.
“Loving is the answer to ending cycles of harm [in the system and with each other],” says Ariel with total confidence. “We just need more love in the world, and resources that really help the people most impacted.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. More than 5,000 women in Louisiana experience domestic violence every year, and last year the New Orleans Police Department received more than 40,000 domestic violence-related calls. But as we’ve seen countless times before, the police don’t always keep survivors safe, especially women of color. If you or someone you know is in a domestic violence-related crisis, call the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence at 1-888-411-1333. If you know someone experiencing a mental health crisis in the greater New Orleans area, call the Metropolitan Human Services District at 504-826-2675. They have a 24/7 trained crisis team that is not affiliated with the police.
They say life’s a bitch and then you die,
that's why I can cry when a real homie die.
They say there is a Heaven for a gangsta.
Well is there?
Find yourself and tell me...
Lost in another world,
I pray that God finds me
and I know he will
But will it be too late?
When he comes looking
and I can't be found,
will he continue to look
or will I be forever "LOST" in time?
I'd be just another memory
like all our fallen soldiers,
another page turned
making our today
and must I still go on?
Tired of living like this
Sometimes I just want to give up
But I keep my faith up,
stay prayed up,
and hold on,
cause I know life goes on.
But I really pray
that he continue to look,
cause I'll continue to seek,
wish I could find him before me.
But as another day comes to an end
I'm still seeking cause of my faith within
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! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Jeremy Smith is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
“One of the biggest lies we’ve been told is that time heals all wounds,” Justin Singleton told an eagerly-listening crowd on the morning of Sept. 28. “But time adds to the wounds. Love heals all wounds.” Singleton is currently doing a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence at Angola State Penitentiary. Usually, people doing LWOP are silenced and hidden from the public eye. For one rare day, however, we heard from not just Singleton, but several others doing life. As a partner of the Life With Other Possibilities Summit, we gathered many concerned citizens, scholars, and activists to learn more about LWOP and what we can do to end it. We heard how the laws created and enforced by our elected officials can help or harm people currently sentenced to death by prison. In addition to hearing from six lifers still on the inside, we were also encouraged by two others who were released because freedom fighters on both the inside and outside demanded that laws and policies be changed. Their stories remind us how much more work we have to do to end LWOP. They also help us understand what we can do about it right now, including vote for elected officials that support real reform.
As Fox Rich, our beloved friend and fellow formerly incarcerated leader says, “When we are united, the laws will change.”
Laws change every day, because they are made by humans who can change every day, too. LWOP laws are no exception. They only began in the 1970s when the Supreme Court ruled against the death penalty. Those who wanted to maintain a system of retribution but could no longer send people to the chair as often decided that LWOP was an equally punitive sentence, Dr. Marcus Konkar explained to us on the 28th. While this history is a bleak one, it reminds us that LWOP was created not long ago, and therefore can be abolished just as quickly. Every day we witness public and political opinions of justice reform changing, which means more and more people are realizing that we can’t heal trauma with trauma.
We see that giving people the opportunity to hear directly from the people most impacted by the criminal (in)justice system really works, which was no less true at the Summit.
Singleton spoke on a panel with his allies Keith Morse and Samuel Kelly, who are also doing LWOP at Angola. Together they run a reentry program for men who are doing shorter sentences at the same facility. Their program has graduated more than 1,500 men in Angola, and their model more than 10,000 worldwide. While Angola’s general recidivism rate is 50%, only 9% of the men who have gone through their program have landed back behind bars. “[We do this] out of a willingness to say we are better than our worst mistakes,” says Morse. “To say we have something to offer.” Kelly agrees, sharing that he helps others succeed “to see hope.” The tragic irony, of course, is that the system has stripped these leaders of their chance at freedom, yet they’re directly showing others how to get and stay free. At their end of their panel, the men implored the audience to get involved as much as possible. To start, we can vote on their behalf, carefully choosing candidates who offer incarcerated people opportunities for freedom. “We are continuing to strive even though people tell us that it’s purposeless and meaningless,” Singleton says.
Samuel Kelly speaks on his experience of doing life without the possibility of parole in Angola.
From L to R: Samuel Kelly, Keith Morse, and Justin Singleton.
Michelle Benjamin was sentenced to LWOP at 16 years old. She did 24 years until being released this past spring because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to LWOP was unconstitutional. She explained how she was constantly treated like her life and opportunities didn’t matter as much as people who weren’t sentenced to life. After all, the system told her she was going to die in prison. She was denied access to many of the programs that people with shorter sentences were easily able to sign up for, including the high school courses she needed to finish her degree. Instead of giving up, she filed a lawsuit for her right to finish school. She got her GED, got out, and is now working on her college degree. In part because of her persistence, the prison policies have changed. Now people doing LWOP have equal access to resources. If Benjamin can organize for lasting change from the inside, we can do the same on the outside.
One of the ways we can organize is by supporting the families of those doing LWOP. As Selina Anderson, another lifer at the Summit, says “[many] mothers are struggling because they're away from their kids.” Shanda Crain chimed in, sharing that when her grandkids come to visit for children’s day activities, they can’t understand why she’s never coming home.
Shanda Crain tells us about the family separation she feels and sees in prison while doing her life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Kelly Garrett, is the Policy Council of our partner organization, Voters Organized to Educate. She’s also the partner of Singleton. “It's a challenge to try to explain to people that [those doing life] are a human being just like everyone else,” she told the audience. “They need even more love.” Her concerns about others’ judgement were echoed by Dominique Jones, Founder and Co-Director of Daughters Beyond Incarceration. Jones’ father is also at Angola doing life. As a kid she was one of the best track runners in the state, but without her dad around, the success didn’t matter to her. At 16 years old, high-schooler Kasey relates to this experience. Unsure what the right thing to do was, the adults in her life kept the secret that her dad was doing LWOP. The system has put countless families in this same lose-lose situation. Keisha White, now an adult, also grew up with her father doing LWOP. She explained how no one from the prison called her when her when her father started having medical troubles. They turned out to be fatal, and he died in prison.
Candice Malone, another lifer, posed the most poignant question of all.“[Is doing] a life sentence really justice?” she asks. “Does it truly make the community better? … I don’t think so.”
We don’t, either, and that’s why we need to use our power: as leaders, as neighbors, as family members, and as voters. The materials that build the majority of prisons are funded by voters, and so are the elected officials who ordered them to be built in the first place. This Saturday, we have the opportunity to vote for those who will order the closing of prisons and the creation of better approaches to harm.
Please vote on behalf of all of the voices heard above, and all others sentenced to life without parole. Not sure where to vote? Find out here. Still not sure who to vote for? Check out Know Your Vote to see who's running and what issues they care about. The primary election is this Saturday, Oct. 12, and the runoff is Nov. 16.
To give a loving service,
that's what I've read;
these days to some--
that's a dread.
is the way most get by;
but in my heart I know that's a lie.
Jesus said, to give as a friend,
to a friend,
for a friend;
Do I expect something back?
Maybe something that I lack.
Thinking like that seems right to some;
not for me no,
I'm not the one.
What if that person has no way to honor
the help that I gave?
Do I demand payment
and make them a slave?
Then I'd be like the loan shark;
my true intentions would be in the dark.
Rethinking the way I should give;
is to know how Jesus showed me how to live.
Going through life one day at a time;
keeping that one thing on mind.
Gift-giving is not inherently in our souls;
however, it's more precious than gold.
Some people would say when asked,
what? the nerve;
never knowing that blessings come
when we learn how to serve.
If you or someone you know is a currently or formerly incarcerated person with creative content to offer, please submit your materials to email@example.com and we'll be in touch! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Michael A. Videau is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penitentiary.
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:
Now Ïz the t’yme to open our eyez
And realÏze our own demÏse
WE MUST RÏSE!
The lÏmÏt Ïz the sky;
As we strÏve to survÏve
We the people must unÏte
Put pryde to the sÏde.
Now Ïz the tyme
Tú konneck wÏth our kreator
B’kum a Ïnnovator,
Not no ÏnstÏgator,
And Ïnkrease lÏke an elevator.
Now Ïz the tyme
Water our vÏnes
Keep relatÏons DÏvÏne
And embrance the sÏgns
as the chose’n people.
Now Ïz the t’yme
Tú make a choÏce
And have a voÏce,
ExercÏse yo lÏbetÏes
ExhÏbÏt yo dÏgnÏtÏes,
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.
Who am I to demand justice?
I have no rights.
I'm just an inmate.
Human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, animal rights,
What am I to expect?
Oh! what the heck,
I'm just an inmate.
I trusted justice and received conviction without evidence.
I became the property of the state,
I'm just an inmate.
No control over any part of my life, yet I exist.
Damn, I'm pissed!
The power of the D.A.'s office and the court system to have me jailed,
With erroneous testimonies,
the verdict was hailed,
Make him an inmate.
I pray to God and have great faith,
and yes,I'm still the property of the state.
I'm just an inmate.
The faith that I have, in the power of prayer and of my God,
I'm confident and trust in my Lord.
Truth and justice will prevail;
I know this down in my soul's core.
My faith and fighting to show my innocence,
I know soon,
I will be an inmate no more.
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! We'll share the content on social media and always give credit to the artist(s) involved. Any type of submission--whether stories, poems, illustrations, music, videos or something else--are welcome! Michael Videau is currently incarcerated at Angola State Penetentiary.
Approximately six million Americans are denied the right to vote because they have a conviction. This is called felony disenfranchisement and it is one of the many tactics of systemic racism. For many years, formerly incarcerated people--like the majority of us at VOTE-- have been stripped of our right to vote, which is essentially the right to speak up and see true justice. Without our voting rights, we’ve had to watch as people who don’t understand or care about us make decisions for our future. But, as of March 1, many of us no longer have to watch from the sidelines. Thanks to the dedication and successes of formerly incarcerated leaders, on that day about 40,000 Louisianans with convictions became eligible to vote. Under this new law--Act 636--anyone who: is off probation and parole, is on probation, or has been on parole for at least 5 years can vote. Now that many of us have our voting rights back, we need to hit the polls. We need to vote on behalf of those who still can’t, who are still behind bars. We need to be modern-day mythbusters, knocking down every argument we hear about why voting doesn’t matter. Because it really, truly does. By voting, we can elect leaders who will help us create a world without mass incarceration.
Louisiana has a super-election in less than 60 days. In addition to local elections for sheriffs and judges, we have elections for the Governor, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, all 105 State Representatives, all 39 State Senators, and more. Every one of these positions has a say in the fate of mass incarceration in our state. In other words, the time to use your vote to help us fight the criminal (in)justice system is Oct. 12. The deadline to register in person is Sept. 11--less than a month away--and the online deadline is close behind on Sept. 21. Please vote because the system will only work for us if we change it to be that way.
1. “My vote is just one vote, so it’s not significant enough to matter.”
This is an excuse that almost all of us have heard. It's understandable that people might feel this way, but it couldn't be further from the truth. There have been many times in history that a single vote was the deciding factor in a major election. In 2016, a House Representative from Wyoming won by just one vote, 583 to 582. In 2008, Republican Rep. Mike Kelly won re-election by a vote of 5,018 to 5,017 over Democratic challenger Karl Kassel. Four years later, Representative Stacey Newman of Missouri won 1,823 to 1,822--just one vote more than her opponent. Now how can you tell us that just one vote can't change the course of the future?
2. “There are no good options, none of them stand for what I truly believe in.”
No candidate is perfect, and that fact shouldn’t discourage us from voting for the one who most closely aligns with our beliefs. It’s better to have someone in office who agrees with two or three of the core issues we are working to reform, rather than someone who will actively support mass incarceration. Choosing someone who checks off some of our boxes is still a step in the right direction.
3. “No candidate truly cares about us.”
It can be hard for us to trust candidates who say they care about us when we’ve been taken advantage of or completely disregarded by the government for centuries. But, there are candidates who do really care about us. For example, Louisiana House Representative Patricia Smith is not shy in showing how she cares about her people in Louisiana, especially those of us with convictions. Smith helped us pass House Bill 265, which restored voting rights to 40,000 formerly incarcerated Louisianans on March 1. When she’s not in her office working on legislation, she is out in her community. On a Sunday, she came out to a Black Voters Matter voter registration event we were hosting, and a few weeks later attended several women’s parole hearings to show her support for bringing them home. She is an elected official who is not in it for the money or the power, and she’s not the only one. Royce Duplessis is another Louisiana House Representative who has come to our meetings, asking his community for feedback about what he can do better--an action that is sometimes ignored by our politicians. These politicians were elected by people like us, and just imagine how we could elect more leaders like them if we all voted.
4. “The government system is corrupt. It’s broken beyond repair at this point.”
The criminal (in)justice system we’re living under isn't broken, it works perfectly. It does exactly what it was made to do. But the way it’s made is not for our people. What makes our system work this way one might ask? People. People are the ones who create and maintain the system. A way to change the system is to change the people who influence the system, and that’s where voting comes in. We need to vote for the people who make sure the system is in our best interest, and not vote for the people who perpetuate corruption.
5. “The Electoral College system is rigged. Hilary got more votes than Trump, but he won.”
The Electoral College only applies to presidential elections, which are every 4 years. There are so many other important elections between then, however, that affect our daily lives and do not use the Electoral College. Local and state elections are based on a simple popular vote win and influence issues closer to home, such as housing, employment, reproductive rights, and criminal (in)justice reform. Our votes have even more power locally than they do at the federal level because, on average, far less people vote locally than they do nationally. Because the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, all 105 House Representatives, and all 39 State Senators have their seats open on Oct. 12, Louisiana has a chance to “reset” the state on that day. In other words, we can elect officials who will create and change laws and policies that directly affect us.
6. “I have so much on my plate right now, so voting is not a priority.”
When we are just trying to make ends meet day by day--which is even harder for people with convictions--it’s easy to push voting to the side. Voting can seem very disconnected from the challenges we face everyday, but it can actually release those stresses. The minimum wage we receive, the healthcare we have or don’t have, and whether or not we’re able to access housing with the stamp of incarceration on our backs are all a function of the government. By voting, we are making our voices heard and let the government know how it should be taking care of us.
7. “The polls are not easily accessible for me.”
Voting takes less than 15 minutes on average, whereas the issues and people we’re voting on will affect us for the rest of our lives. While many states require employers to give employees paid time off to go vote, unfortunately Louisiana isn’t one of them. But if we all go vote, we can change this and add our state to that list! In the meantime, you can pack a lunch for work and head to the polls during your break or early before your day starts. Most polls are open as early as 7am and as late as 8pm. Find your polling location hours here. If transportation to the polls is an issue, there are options such as getting a free ride through Vote Riders or a Carpool Network if you’re in New Orleans. If it’s still not possible for you to get to the polls on Election Day, you can vote early during the Early Voting period (Sept. 28 through Oct. 5 for the upcoming Oct. 12 election). Or you can submit an absentee ballot as long as you plan ahead so that it will get to the Registrar’s Office in time for the election.
8. “I don’t think I’m eligible to vote.”
As of March 1, if you are off probation or parole; have been on parole for at least five years; or on probation, you CAN vote! If you’ve been to jail but never received a conviction, you can vote, too. Finally, if you have a misdemeanor charge, you never lost your voting rights! Disenfranchisement is only based on felony convictions, and we fight to end this practice every day. Don’t assume you or your loved ones can’t vote! If you’re unsure, please call us at 504-571-9599 or email us at email@example.com. There are a lot of myths out there about who can and can’t vote and what you need to do to get registered, but we’re here to help you figure it all out.
9. “I don’t want to be called for jury duty.”
Juries are the cornerstone of democracy in America. Juries decide if we are innocent or guilty. As such, our lives can be in the palm of their hands. Juries were created to be a representative sample of the person on trial’s peers, yet in Louisiana, on average only two of the 12 jurors are people of color. Worse, until January 1 of this year, Louisiana was one of only two states that allowed people to be convicted on a non-unanimous jury. In other words, this Jim Crow-era law made it possible for 10 white jurors to convict someone who they thought was guilty, even if the remaining two jurors thought he was innocent. This led to the wrongful conviction of many Black Louisianans, including our own leader, Norris Henderson. Today, thanks to Norris’ leadership, non-unanimous juries are no longer legal in Louisiana. But that doesn’t change the racial makeup of juries, so it’s as important as ever for those who care about ending mass incarceration to show up for jury duty. This gives us the power to make fair and just decisions on behalf of those in our communities whose lives and circumstances may be a lot like ours.
10. “I don’t vote because it’s not part of my norm. I have never been surrounded by people who vote.”
Now is the time to break the cycle of avoiding civic engagement. Many of us have lived our lives without understanding the importance of voting, whether it be because our parents never voted or our social circle never talked about politics. But our ancestors didn’t fight for our rights--including the right to cast a ballot--just for us to dismiss them and ignore the chance to create change. We owe it to them to never miss an election day and to show the next generation the importance of exercising the right to vote. If everyone participated in voting, our whole government could be rid of injustices. We need to wake up the sleeping giant by having our voices be heard at the election polls.
If we haven’t convinced you by now to vote, we won’t stop trying. With less than 80 days until the Oct. 12 election and so many seats up for election, there is a lot more work to be done. If you or someone you know is interested in helping us register people to vote, call us at 504-571-9599 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you set up. Geaux vote!