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Panel discusses felon disenfranchisement

Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 02:12

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Nick Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Tufts Democrats, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the Peace and Justice Studies program yesterday evening hosted a panel discussion on felon disenfranchisement in the United States. 

Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union Carl Williams, along with ex-prisoner and Criminal Justice Committee Organizer at the Boston Workers Alliance Sunni Ali and Third Vice President for the Boston National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Supreme Richardson, joined the panel, led by Assistant Professor of Political Science Natalie Masuoka.

As part of their discussion around the disenfranchisement of incarcerated persons, panelists discussed issues of racial discrimination within the U.S. incarceration system. 

Minorities have higher chances of being incarcerated, Masuoka said in her opening remarks. Black men have a one in three chance of being incarcerated during their lifetimes and Latino men have a one in six chance, compared to the one in 17 chance that a Caucasian man will go to prison, she said.  

“If you know someone who is black in this country it is merely a mathematical certainty that a person in their extended family is incarcerated,” Williams said. 

Ali pointed to the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution as responsible for the disproportionate number of incarcerated minorities. 

“The 13th Amendment of the Constitution says slavery is abolished in America everywhere except as punishment for crime,” Ali said. “That’s the reason 55 percent of incarcerated [people] are black but [black individuals] only make 13 percent of the population.” 

Ali also pointed to the War on Drugs and its media coverage as contributing to the increasing number of black males in prison. 

“We used to be able to vote in prison ... until the War on Drugs,” he said. 

He explained that Caucasians, as a demographic, make up the largest number of drug users in the United States, yet black males represent the highest number of people charged for drug possession and drug-related crime. 

The panelists also discussed the role of education in the U.S. prison system. About 60 percent of all males in prison do not have a high school diploma, according to Ali. 

“Why are our prisons so full with uneducated people?” he asked. “Think about that. Who does that affect the most? The suburban where there are less crowded private schools? Or the urban dweller?”

The panelists also criticized the media’s sensationalist use of the word “crack” in early coverage of the War on Drugs. 

“I’m a Vietnam vet,” Ali explained. “The worst drug in this country then was heroine and the worst drug in this country now is heroine. It’s not ‘crack.’... There’s no such thing as a crack baby. It’s a connotation that was put in your mind by the media.”

Richardson criticized certain prison programs, claiming they unrightfully pride themselves as “correctional facilities.”

“It’s called a ‘correctional facility,’ but these people don’t even know how to wash their hands when they get out of prison,” he said. “They’re used to turning on the faucet and have never seen an automatic sink. They’re not taught about what’s changed.”

There are four levels of disenfranchisement in the United States, Williams explained. In some states, people can vote in prison and jail, but in other states, those who are serving time on a felony are barred from voting. Certain states allow people to vote while they are on parole, but not while they are serving time, and, in some states, voting rights of incarcerated people are stripped permanently. 

“The only two states where you can vote in prison and jail are Maine and Vermont,” Williams said. “Why? Because they’re in the liberal Northeast but more importantly, they’re white.”

Richardson said imprisoned people should have a right to select who will represent them in society. 

“When people died for their voting rights [during the Civil Rights Movement] they had no idea it was going to be this easy to strip people of their voting rights.” Richardson said. “Because they committed a crime does not mean they should be stripped of their right to vote.”

The panelists urged students to get involved in the movement to end criminal discrimination and grant incarcerated persons voting rights by contacting non-profits and even writing to prisoners. 

“You are the future,” Richardson said. “You are the individuals who are going to make the changes tomorrow.” 

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