Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility/OAR writing contest, August 2021
I am human
I am a citizen
I am not the criminal conviction
It is with premise that I sought a way out of my dispair. A dispair due to the fact that I and many others were sidelined during the 2020 United States Presidential election because of incarceration. So, on November 3,2020 and the days immediately afterwards, an idea was spawned to create non-profit organization with the focused pledge to aid all eligible formally incarcerated citizens returning to their community exercise their democratic right to vote. This pledge would be achieved, in part, through advocacy, voter education, and voter registration.
The organization would be branded/named: The Returning Citizen Initiative ©
– We’re home, we’re voting – ©
A 501(c) non-profit dedicated to the voting rights of the formally incarcerated citizen returning to their community.
What follows is a considered snapshot of the content to be included in the formal business plan for the establishment of The Returning Citizen Initiative.
Let us concisely place this unique form of the disenfranchisement of ex-felons (the “invisible punishment”) in a historical context.
“[T]he slave went free, stood a
brief moment in the sun; then moved
back again towards slavery.”
Black Reconstruction America
In Michelle Alexander’s landmark book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she opens with a penetrating introduction to Jarvious Cotton:
“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-great grandfather, and great-great-great grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy…the freedom for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life…His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy test. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many in the United States has been labeled a felon…”
During the previous generations of the Cotton family, there were historical periods referred to as the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877) and the Jim Crow era (1877-1945). Blacks went from a time where a host of federal civil rights laws protecting the recently freed slaves were passed including the Fifteenth Amendment. This change to the U.S. Constitution provided that the right to vote must not be withheld on account of race. Then came Jim Crow (a racial caste system). It was at the beginning of Jim Crow that the criminal justice system was used to force Blacks back into a system of repression and control, a tactic that would continue for decades to come.
The National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning: The definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by the Harvard University facility member, Ibram X. Kendi, artfully details how the “Jim Crow Codes” denied Blacks the right to vote through various devices including felon disenfranchisement laws.
“Blacks were disproportionally charged with felonies – in fact, some crimes were specifically defined as felonies with the objective of eliminating Blacks from the electorate – felon disenfranchisement laws effectively suppressed the Black vote as well.”
Now fast forward to the 1983 Drug Reform Act; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, 2013 Supreme Court ruling on the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the “Big Lie,” and the current sweeping voter suppression efforts underway in several state legislatures. With this historical backdrop, The Returning Citizen Initiative’s onramp onto the stage to join with those voices crying to front the returning citizen the right to vote will be a starting point.
Aside from the required process of launching a new 501(c) non-profit organization, the mission of The Returning Citizen Initiative is to ensure the voting rights of the formally incarcerated citizens to their community through advocacy – voter education and voter registration. The vision of The Returning Citizen Initiative is to be a nimble; data-drive, and best practices organization effecting legislation and policy, first on a state level and then on a national level to the benefit of the formally incarcerated. Thereby, creating an opportunity for our brothers and sisters, who have “paid their dues; did their time” to enjoy the dignity, self-confidence, and purpose that participating in the political process – as a full citizen – can endow.
As we approach this important work, we will partner with like mind organizations and policy generators to fill any needs gaps. Armed with a plan, persuasiveness, and persistence, The Returning Citizen Initiative’s initial political lobbying will involve approaching the Virginia State Assembly to pass legislation allowing for the voting by convicted felons while still incarcerated in jail/prison.
On a final note, The Returning Citizen Initiative was born out of dispair. However, I have the unyielding hope that this organization will have an impact on bringing overdue solutions to the issues of the formally incarcerated citizens fully participating in their right to vote – to have their…”moment in the sun.”