But Lateef also pointed out that, as appreciative as he is of the opportunity to vote now, there is nothing inherent in his current condition that makes him more suited to vote than when he was incarcerated. “I was and continue to be the same person that I was not just five years ago, 10 years ago, 15, 20 years ago,” he said. “In terms of being able to avail myself of a political process and make decisions predicated on my interest and that of my community and my family, I certainly had that capacity years and decades ago.”
Lateef told me that he is not an exception, and that prisons across the country are full of people who follow and are engaged in the political process while incarcerated, even if they don’t have access to the most fundamental political right. They want to be able to vote not only to hold the system keeping them locked in cages accountable, but also to be part of the democratic process that shapes the lives of their families, their children, and their communities. People in prison want to be able to vote to decide who is going to sit on the school board in the districts where their children go to school. They want to be able to vote for the city-council members who shape which social services are prioritized in their neighborhoods. They want to be able to vote for the representative who will help their parents get the health care they need. Many follow these issues closely, like Lateef did while he was in prison, but are unable to make their voices heard with their vote. “It isn’t that people are ill-equipped on the inside,” he told me, “it’s simply that they have been stripped and deprived of the ability to access and exercise their vote.”
What Lateef is describing is the phenomenon scholars refer to as civil death, the notion that, upon being incarcerated, people lose all of their civil rights. As the scholar Caleb Smith writes in his book The Prison and the American Imagination, in the American system “the incarcerated convict retains his ‘natural life’––his heart beats on, he labors, and he consumes––but he has lost the higher, more abstract, civil life that made him fully human in the eyes of the law.”
I asked Lateef what sort of impact being given the right to vote would have on the people he knew in prison, and he said it would immediately enhance their sense of self-worth and agency, and would make them feel more connected to a world—and to communities—that they had been taken away from. “And that’s huge in and of itself in a place that is designed to demoralize and humiliate the human spirit,” he said.
The movement to restore the franchise to incarcerated people has made progress over the past few years, in part because Bernie Sanders’s presidential platform included an endorsement of the unequivocal right for incarcerated people to vote; he was the only candidate in the Democratic primary to hold that position. Most of the progress, though, is due to the tireless work of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, along with their families, in grassroots movements across the country.