Democrat John Bel Edwards has been elected to serve as Louisiana’s next governor. That’s partly because more voters than expected cast ballots in Saturday’s election. Some go to greater lengths than others to vote… including some current and former inmates.
Louisiana, unlike many of its Deep South neighbors, restores voting rights to citizens with felony convictions after they have served their time. But many people who have served their time are still left out.
In prison I was what you call a jailhouse lawyer. I studied law; that’s all I done,” says Calvin Duncan.
“I’m 52 years old,” he continues. “I was wrongfully convicted. Sent to prison for 28 and a half years for a crime I didn’t commit, and when I was released in 2011 by the hard work of the Innocence Project, I wanted to be able to vote, to enjoy the most fundamental right Americans enjoy.”
Within 72 hours of his release, Duncan went to City Hall and registered to vote. But it was while serving time in Angola that he came to appreciate the full value of this right. Duncan was part of a group called the Angola Special Civics Project.
“It’s an organization that guys in prison would contact their families and say: 'look mom and dad, you got to register to vote, you got to go vote because you have to help us change our circumstances,'” explains Duncan.
Duncan would call his aunt. She’d given up voting because – like many people – she was frustrated with politicians and had lost faith in the system. But Duncan changed that.
“'Cause she would contact me: 'Calvin, you know they got this guy running for office; who you think we should vote for?'” Duncan recalls. “I would say, don’t vote for that judge because that judge is using her position to be tough on crime, which is not her job. Vote for this person because this person is saying we’re going to take people that are accused of crimes and develop programs and take preventative measures.”
Now Duncan gets to make those decisions himself. A 1974 provision in the Louisiana constitution says, once convicted felons have served their time – whether in prison, probation, or on parole – they can vote.
“I’m not voiceless anymore. I have the greatest power you can have in this country.”
“Every inmate gets an inmate orientation form, and a section of that form is dedicated to inmate voting,” explains Captain William Devlin, who runs the inmate voting program at the new Orleans Parish jail – which mostly holds people awaiting trial. Devlin ran inmate voting at the old jail, OPP, too.
“The very first thing that happens is we sent out a form to the tiers that says: 'You have an election coming up on such and such a date. Do you want to vote?'”
Devlin looks over the list of inmates interested in voting. Those in jail awaiting trial, who aren't under order of imprisonment, confinement, probation or parole – they’re eligible. Devlin sends the list with his notes to the registrar, which after a rather involved process, gets absentee ballots to inmates who qualify.
The new jail is quiet and industrial. We take an elevator up to security, then another elevator up to the floor where two inmates in orange jumpsuits have been brought from their pods.
Out of close to 1,600 inmates, 49 requested to vote in the run-off election for governor. Eight qualified. Inside a small multi-purpose room, Deputy Gene Law opens the ballots for two of the inmates and hands them pens.
“That’s your instructions to read,” Deputy Law tells one of the inmates.
“One in here and one in here?” asks one of the inmates, Jerome.
“Yes, one in every category,” answers Deputy Law. “You got governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.”
Both inmates have voted before, but Jerome, says: “It’s my first time voting in jail.”
The other inmate, Jonathan, has been inside since March and has voted in every election since then. He says it’s a right Americans take for granted.
“Being in jail, I guess, makes voting even more important because if you’re a convicted felon that is taken from you for a certain amount of time. You can eventually get it back, but, so now, even more, I definitely want to vote while I can, because if I do get convicted it will be a while before I can do it again.”
Gregory Finney was released from prison on August 24 for possession of a small amount of crack and heroin – what he was going to use himself.
“Before I went to prison,” says Finney, “I was voting. I never missed voting before I went to prison. I used to make sure I get there 6 in the morning, 7 in the morning just to be the first one in there.”
After serving 16 years, Finney was released for his good conduct, but because of mandatory state drug laws, he’ll be on probation for the rest of his life. Which means, even though he’s no longer in jail, unless the laws change he’ll never be able to vote.
“I committed a drug crime,” says Gregory Finney. “They got people that committed worse crimes than that, but they can vote. We can’t vote. It ain’t 'I feel left out;' I am left out.”
Calvin Duncan, the former jailhouse lawyer, says back in 1974, when the Louisiana state constitution stipulated that citizens on parole could not vote – it was before the "war on drugs" and harsh mandatory sentencing. Duncan says the citizens of Louisiana likely never envisioned taking away a citizen’s right to vote for life.
Duncan says that every time he votes, he thinks of Martin Luther King and how after the voting rights law was passed, “people that couldn’t vote, they lined up for miles and miles just to vote. That comes to my mind,” he says. “But I’m also reminded that that feeling that I feel of having power is a feeling that a lot of my friends will never, ever experience.”
At least, not until those who can vote elect legislators who are willing to change the law.
Unprisoned is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by WWNO and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Unprisoned will bring you more stories about the effects of mass incarceration on our city in the new year. Check out our Facebook page for photographs, links to resources and more. We’re still setting the page up, so tell us what you’d like to see.