An inmate at the Cook County Department of Corrections casts a ballot Oct. 17, the first day of early voting at the facility. (Photo courtesy of Cook County's Sheriff Office)
An inmate at the Cook County Department of Corrections casts a ballot Oct. 17, the first day of early voting at the facility.

Photo courtesy of Cook County's Sheriff Office

Law co-written by DePaul students provides inmates voting access, education

November 1, 2020

In a tweet sent out to his nearly 20 million followers on Oct. 13, Snoop Dogg announced that after looking into the law, he is in fact eligible to vote in his home state of California, despite his 1990 felony conviction. Now, he plans to vote for the first time at the age of 48.

He is just one of many former felons who enter the American criminal justice system legal voters and leave unclear about their rights.

Presently, there are about 750,000 people in jail who are eligible to vote but lack the proper means to do so, and outside of prison walls, there are about 4.5 million people whose voting rights are limited in some way, according to DePaul political science professor Christina Rivers.

 Felony voter laws are handled at the state level, meaning where an individual serves their time dictates their path to regaining their right to vote. Illinois is one of 17 states where the right to vote is lost only while incarcerated with automatic restoration after release. Still, many are unaware of this fact and believe the widely spread misconception that felons lose their right to vote permanently.

 This year, two bills went into effect in Illinois to attempt to address felon disenfranchisement and voter access. The first, the Re-Entering Citizens Civics Educations Act, drafted in part by Rivers and her students at DePaul, requires that all soon-to-be released individuals receive an education in civics and voter rights.

 This bill, the first of its kind in the country, was devised largely from the minds of incarcerated individuals in the Inside-Out program at Stateville Correctional Center who were interested in ensuring their fellow inmates had access to a proper civics education. 

DePaul students join inmates in Inside-Out to learn together and from each other as they discuss politics, law and the criminal justice system in a classroom environment. 

 With the help of the nonprofit Chicago Votes and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Rivers and all of her students, both from DePaul and Stateville, drafted the legislation and the curriculum for the civics courses.

 Ultimately, the bill passed with no objection, unlike most of the legislation that makes its way to Springfield. Rivers says this is likely because it’s hard to argue with something that simply works to ensure civil liberties.

 “This bill is not asking for any new rights,” Rivers said. “It’s just asking to ensure that people knew their rights as they left and rejoined society.”

Inmates at the Cook County Department of Corrections cast their ballot prior to Election Day. (Photo courtesy of Cook County Sheriff’s Office)

 One staple of the bill also guarantees that inmates are learning from and with their peers, by their own design. 

 “[Our incarcerated colleagues] thought it would be great if they gave the workshops because they knew that they would resonate better with each other than some stranger coming in or a corrections officer giving these workshops,” Rivers said. “And it also gave them skin in the game and gave them a sense of purpose, of engagement and value and purpose.”

 This structure also may have helped the bill pass as quickly as it did, Rivers said. The Illinois Department of Corrections does not have to hire any outside staff faculty to implement and run the workshops and they can pay the imprisoned instructors standard prison wages, which are often small.

 The second of this year’s new bills that aims to address this problem requires that Cook County Jail, the third-largest jail system in the country by inmate population, operate as an official polling location for in-person voting in hopes of expanding access.

 Alexandria Boutros, the organizing manager at Chicago Votes, has been on the ground floor of both bills’ implementations. Despite this year’s unique challenges, both initiatives are taking off.

 “Covid-19 was the biggest unexpected challenge to the implementation of our laws,” she said. “However, they haven’t stopped the implementation, and we are continually working with both the Cook County and Illinois Department of Corrections to ensure implementation still happens.”

 Because of social distancing guidelines put in place at the start of the pandemic, programming for in-person civics courses was shut down about three months in, Boutros said. Still, everyone leaving the IDOC receives a civics education packet with information and resources about their rights.

 In March, the Cook County Jail held in-person voting for the primary election where about 1,500 pretrial detainees cast their vote, according to the Chicago Tribune

Amni Gandhi and her colleagues at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights have been working throughout this election season and seasons past to provide critical voting information to anyone who needs it, including by collaborating on these bills. Importantly, Gandhi says, with Cook County Jail open for in-person voting, they are one step closer to equal access for all.

 “Vote by Mail was a longstanding program in Cook County Jail, and while that was a way that some people felt comfortable participating, it was not a program that was truly accessible to all,” Gandhi said. “And it’s critical that voters should have a choice about which way they feel most comfortable and prepared to participate in voting.”

Looking ahead to Tuesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has repeatedly reassured voters that the tightening Covid-19 restrictions across the state will not impact voting precincts leading up to the election. 

With these bills in place, many current and former inmates in Chicago are planning to cast their votes for the first time, whether it be in person or by mail, joining Snoop Dogg and millions more across the country. 

 

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