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Disenfranchised Felons: Citizens Without the Right to Vote in the US

In Voting on December 10, 2008 at 4:24 am

Kristine Breganio

In September 2008, the Sentencing Project, an agency that researches state policies regarding felony disenfranchisement, reported that as many as 5 million felons could not vote in the 2008 Presidential election.  Included in this number are current prisoners, probationers, parolees, and ex-prisoners.  In his report “Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform 1997-2008, ” Ryan King of the Sentencing Project describes the years leading up to this historic election and the efforts of nineteen states to reform their disenfranchisement policies which resulted in the restoration of voting rights for 760,000 ex-felons.

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Historically, the federal government has used voter disenfranchisement to lock certain populations deemed undesirable out of the vote; groups such as women, criminals, African Americans, other minorities and the poor. Today convicted felons are the only remaining group that remains disenfranchised by law, according to Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, and author of the essay, “Mass Imprisonment and the Disappearing Voters.”

More recently, proponents of felony disenfranchisement see denying felons the right to vote as another form of punishment, and as a measure to prevent potential electoral fraud. Conservatives who support felony disenfranchisement want to prevent criminals from voting for representatives who would work in their favor. They see convicted felons as a demographic that could go to the democratic side. In a recent phone interview, King confirmed that the conservatives had a legitimate reason to be apprehensive of felons securing the right to vote; had they had the opportunity to do so in the 2008 election, they would have “overwhelmingly voted democratic,” resulting in an even wider margin of victory for Barack Obama. When it comes to electoral fraud, however, Mauer claims that proponents of felony disenfranchisement have nothing to fear, as 99 percent of felons have no charges of electoral fraud in their history. Furthermore, Mauer points out that electoral fraud is not a felony, but a misdemeanor, and those with such charges are not at risk of disenfranchisement.

New bill calls for justice at Tamms

In supermax on December 10, 2008 at 4:03 am

Katie Drews

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After a 370-mile trek to the southern tip of Illinois, members of the Tamms Year Ten campaign met with the Illinois Department of Corrections on Oct. 23 for a tour of Tamms, a closed maximum security prison. It was a step toward greater transparency — or so they thought.

Upon arrival at the prison, IDOC officials, members of Tamms Year Ten, a reform group dedicated to the oversight of Tamms, and Ill. Rep. Eddie Washington were escorted into a conference room. After brief introductions, IDOC executive chief Sergio Molina asked the prison staff to leave the room and then delivered the surprising news: “We will not be able to allow a tour today.”

Built in 1998 as a supermax facility, Tamms keeps prisoners in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day with no human contact. The original design of the prison was for short-term incarceration, but one third of the inmates have been there since it opened ten years ago and 100 men have been held there since April of 1999. The Tamms Year Ten campaign is promoting a bill, HB6651, which calls for clear criteria to determine which men are sent to Tamms and guidelines on how inmates can leave. The bill also prohibits sending the mentally ill to the facility.

For Tamms Year Ten, the tour of the prison was a step forward in communicating with the IDOC, but after hearing Molina’s announcement in the conference room, every member was left stunned. Molina explained that he received the order from IDOC Director Roger E. Walker Jr. the day before because “this institution is in the crosshairs” with pending litigation. However, the lawsuit has been in contingency for years and other organizations have since visited inside the prison.

“People took two days off work and spent a lot of time and money to get here,” said Laurie Jo Reynolds, a leader of Tamms Year Ten. “This lawsuit has been going on for years. This visit has been planned for weeks. Why couldn’t you have told us last Thursday, last Friday, last Monday, last Tuesday, or yesterday? No phone call yesterday to tell us?”

Technology Time Warp

In Reentry on December 9, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Michelle Pomerleau

Many holiday shoppers will go to stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, and the Apple Store to buy the latest technology for their friends and family.  Their purchases will include iPods, laptops, Blackberrys, and digital cameras.  Would you believe that some Americans are asking for typewriters and cassette players this holiday season?  Would you believe that some having been saving for these items for years and still desperately want them?  For the more than one percent of Americans that are incarcerated, iPods and computers are beyond their reach.  The technology available to inmates is the technology that Americans on the “outside” last saw decades ago.  Some inmates in American prisons have never used a cell phone or the internet. They are in a technological time warp and some will soon return to the outside world, a world that has rapidly progressed in its technology while they served their time behind bars.

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The items that prisoners in Illinois are permitted to have are determined by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). The Department’s main concern is safety—both of the staff and of the inmates. Computers and devices like iPods, which hold the capacity to exchange and store large amounts of information, are too complex to be regulated by the IDOC. However, though inmates do not have access to computers, it is recognized that inmates need to be able to produce readable documents as many inmates appeal their case. At Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois, typewriters can be ordered through the prison’s commissary. The commissary was founded in 1930 and it offers the latest technology available to prisoners like the Sintec 2410 typewriter for $279.54. The typewriter is specifically designed for use in prisons, made with clear plastic to deter inmates from trying to conceal contraband inside the machine. Other items on the commissary product list include art supplies, beverages, clothing, shoes, towels, blankets, electronics, food, games, housewares like bowls and mugs, toiletries, vitamins, and office supplies. The most expensive item is the typewriter; the least expensive is a legal envelope for 16 cents.

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