What I Learned Fighting for Voters Behind Bars
By Alexandria Boutros
From Detroit to DePaul
When I was 17 years old, I woke up to a disturbing reality: Racism still exists. This may seem obvious to you, but for a girl growing up in one of Detroit’s “white flight” suburbs, it came as a shock. I had been taught that while slavery had once existed in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement cured what remained of American racism. At the same time, I remember openly fearing Detroit – I was not supposed to spend time around “those people.” These contradictions came to a head at my Unitarian Universalist church. At age 17, I attended a national youth justice training where, for the first time, we talked about the ugly imprint of racism on many intersecting facets of modern society. I realized how blinded I’d been by the erasure of these issues at my school, and I decided to seek out more education on my own. In my senior year, I met the leader of a prison ministry organization who opened my eyes to the injustices of American mass incarceration.
At age 18, I knew two things: First, I had a passion for civil rights. Second, I needed to find a way inside a prison so I could observe this system and the people impacted by it from close up.
In September 2014, I entered DePaul University as a Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies major, and very soon learned of DePaul’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The program brings classes and students from DePaul into the Cook County Jail and Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, to learn side by side with incarcerated community members.
The difference between prison and jail
I think it’s important to pause for a moment and briefly explain the difference between Stateville and Cook County Jail. Stateville is a prison, meaning everyone incarcerated there has been convicted of a crime. In Cook County Jail, by contrast, more than 90 percent of the people incarcerated are waiting for trial and have not been convicted of any crime. These individuals are typically forced to wait at the jail because they cannot afford to pay the bail bond set by the court (which is usually upwards of $5,000, according to the Chicago Community Bond Fund).
My first Inside-Out class - Law, Politics and Mass Incarceration with Professor Christina Rivers - was held in Stateville prison. We began by using the Socratic method to question the landmark Supreme Court decision Marbury v. Madison, and moved through key decisions on the rights of the accused. The course culminated in disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions and prison-based gerrymandering. Then we discussed the voter disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions. We were divided into small groups for our final projects. My group included two DePaul students and two currently incarcerated students, John and Chico, and our project focused on voting rights in Illinois for those with a felony record.
In Illinois, a person loses their right to vote while they are serving a sentence for a criminal conviction. As a result, around 48,652 people in 2013 had their votes suppressed because of their incarceration, and around 28,000 of those incarcerated people were Black, according to the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. In other words, as of 2013, even though Black people made up only 15 percent of Illinois’ general population, they comprised 58 percent of the Illinois prison population. Incarcerated individuals regain their legal right to vote after their sentence has been served; but in practice this rarely happens. Inside-Out alumni of my Law and Politics class formed a think tank and conducted an informal survey of voter knowledge among people in Stateville. The survey revealed that 63 percent of the surveyed respondents were unaware of their eligibility to vote after release, and 73 percent were unaware of the process required in Illinois to reclaim their voting rights – yet 93 percent said the right to vote is “very important” to them.
These numbers shocked me to my core; I knew I had to continue investigating voting rights and their intersections with the criminal justice system. In 2016, I started volunteering with the Voting Rights Project of Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, led by Ami Gandhi. With my acceptance to the McCormick Community Internship through the Steans Center at DePaul, I secured funding to deepen this work. My work with Ami has focused on combating voter suppression throughout Illinois, including not only improving access for voters in the criminal justice system, but also tackling issues like Election Day Registration and language access to the polls.
In the fall of 2017 Ami also began to participate with the think tank, and soon became a permanent member, helping us develop a legislative proposal that would require peer-led voter education for community members leaving Illinois prisons. Chicago Lawyers’ Committee has also worked with our Stateville colleagues to produce a “know-your-voting-rights” pamphlet for people in Illinois’ criminal justice system. During the March 2018 primary election season, I served as legal advocate for voters in pre-trial detention in Cook County Jail as part of a partnership between Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, Chicago Votes, Chicago Board of Elections, Cook County Clerk’s Office, and Cook County Department of Corrections. As I observed the immense challenges of protecting voting rights in jail, it was clear that policy reform would have a major role to play in mounting any serious challenge to the status quo.
"I had no facts readily available."
One of our incarcerated Stateville Think Tank colleagues recently testified: “As a prior pretrial detainee and an individual that completed my sentence, I did not have any available information informing me of my right to vote. I automatically assumed I couldn’t. I was even told I couldn’t vote by me having a prior conviction. I had no facts readily available to dispute [this].”
Although people in pre-trial detention have not been convicted of a crime and have the same legal right to vote as people who aren’t incarcerated, there is a stark difference in their access to the polls. Illinois voters outside jail have access to Election Day Registration, early voting, grace period voting, mail-in ballots, automatic voter registration, and multiple online voter education platforms. Meanwhile, those in jail must apply for and submit a mail-in ballot (a process that may be confusing and not well advertised), and then they may get limited in-person assistance with mail-in ballots on a designated day through a pilot program by Chicago Board of Elections and Cook County Clerk’s Office. This means that people who are in pre-trial detention simply because they cannot afford their bail, and who are predominantly people of color, have severely limited access to the ballot.
Tools of voter suppression are not new in the United States; many of them (like poll taxes) were abolished by the 24th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Yet over the course of my classroom experience at Stateville and Cook County Jail and my work with the Voting Rights Project I have discovered that in Illinois in 2018, thousands of people are still being denied the right to vote because of their economic status and their race. It will take hard work, perseverance, and engagement with incarcerated people to dismantle these modern tools of voter suppression – and I am grateful to be part of that fight.
Click through to watch Alex's presentation on her internship with Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.