Jail-In Vote

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A Harlem group is hoping to ensure that people who are locked up aren’t unfairly locked out of their voting rights.

The Community Justice Center, founded by a group of ex-prisoners concerned with criminal justice abuses, is targeting a voter education drive to the 30,000 people housed in New York county jails, in the hopes of getting the largely disenfranchised group in touch with their political power.

Under state law, convicted felons are barred from voting for the duration of their sentence and parole. But alleged offenders with no prior convictions who are awaiting trial in jail are still eligible to vote. The problem is that they rarely exercise their franchise, says Eddie Ellis, a founding member of the center.

“It’s an invisible constituency that can make a serious difference in many local races,” says Ellis, a one-time Black Panther who himself served 19 years in prison.

According to recent research, the majority of men stowed away in New York City jails come from just nine neighborhoods–Harlem, Washington Heights and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn, the South and Central Bronx and South Jamaica, Queens.

“Given the extreme number of people you’ve seen incarcerated from poor communities over the last 20 years, it does begin to have an impact on access to political power,” says Bob Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association, an advocacy and research organization.

Giving the vote to even a small percentage of the behind-bars electorate could conceivably have significant political impact. In those nine neighborhoods, which elect 20 representatives to the State Assembly and six to the State Senate, typical turnouts for state races are 5,000 to 10,000 people. In contested races, the margin of victory can be as small as several hundred votes.

In the coming months, the center’s workers, most of them ex-cons, will hold voter education sessions in city jails. Eventually, they hope to get the AFL-CIO interested in the project.