November 4th, 2016
The right to vote is of great importance and should be enjoyed by every citizen. But until you lose your own right to vote, you will not fully understand its importance. I can attest to this: I lost my ability to vote for many years because of a crime I committed.
Some states take away your right to vote forever if you are convicted of a felony. In New York State, according to the New York State Division of Parole, your right to vote is restored once you have completed either parole or your maximum sentence. If you are on probation, your right to vote is never taken away. An alarming aspect of this is that many individuals in this situation are eligible to vote, but don’t know it.
When I was released from prison in 1997 after serving 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence given to me under the Rockefeller drug laws, I had no clue about my eligibility to cast a vote. When I went to register to vote, I was shocked when they informed me that I had to wait until I was released from parole in order to do so. I felt the pain of felony disenfranchisement since it seemed I was being further punished for my crime.
Because of this, I now seek to inform all ex-offenders of their voting rights, and how important it is for them to vote.
This is especially true in the upcoming presidential election. Formerly incarcerated individuals will play an important role in electing our next president—but some will not be given the chance. It is a well-known fact that the denial of the vote to ex-felons in important battleground states like Florida can have tremendous influence on elections.
Florida is one of only four states—along with Virginia, Iowa and South Dakota—with a lifetime ban on voting for any person convicted of a felony. There are about 1.5 million Florida residents who cannot vote. This means that one in 10 Floridians of voting age are disenfranchised. This is an astounding figure, one with the potential to sway the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.
We must speak out against this situation, and find ways to overturn these Jim Crow-type laws that still exist.
I remember very clearly when I was released from prison and tried to vote, and was turned away. I felt like I was a second-class citizen because I was powerless to help fix my South Bronx neighborhood at a time when it was deteriorating around me.
I had to wait five years until I was off of parole in order to vote. When I was finally allowed to vote, I felt complete and fully welcomed back by society as a citizen.
Exercising the right to vote should be an important part of an ex-prisoner’s rehabilitation. It’s an act that makes one feel whole again following years of not having those rights. If, through voting, individuals can become involved in the political process, they have a much better chance of fully integrating back into society.
Anthony Papa is an activist, author and artist. He is manager of media and artist relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, and his art has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and many other venues. He is the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency (2016) and 15 to Life (2004). You can follow him on Twitter: @.
The image above is a detail from Anthony Papa’s painting, “The Vote.”