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Civil Death & Outlaws…

Some years back, I received a notice from the prison mailroom that a letter containing an application form for an absentee ballot was rejected by the prison and sent back.  On the notice, the mailroom guard had written, “When you were sent to prison, you lost your right to vote!”

State Prison Populations

Going to the mailroom, I told the supervisor that there was no such law.  States determine specific voting laws and they’re all different.  Prisoners from some states can vote.  The letter had been part of my procedure for checking on the status of my own state.

He snapped that it was federal law, and that I was a federal prisoner.  When I asked what law he was talking about, he glared at me and asked, “Who do you plan on voting for?”

When I didn’t answer, he said, “I thought so.  Well, you can’t vote.  And if you don’t get outta my face right now, I’m gonna kick your fuckin’ teeth down your throat!”

In the final analysis, that’s what prison is all about: Ignorance and the rule of raw power.

Part of the ruling regimen of retribution and punishment includes “civil death”: the loss of all civil rights.  In old Europe, the term “outlaw” was associated with individuals guilty of treason (by their lordly masters) or convicted felons.  It was carried over into colonial and American law.

It became wholesale practice in the South after the Civil War (1865) in order to disenfranchise the vote of the ex-slaves, who in many locales otherwise outnumbered white voters.  Together with the exception clause of the 13th Amendment (ostensibly outlawing slavery), southern law officials and politicians enacted the Black Codes, which criminalized many of the conditions and behaviors of the ex-slaves, and also placed them in hard labor and involuntary servitude–neo-slavery.  This is the foundation to modern prison society

Two of the ways by which prisoners are denied democratic rights include, the denial of the right to vote, and by creating gerrymandered voting districts.   The Census count is used in this cause.  In New York, for instance, more than 2/3rds of the state’s 59,000 prisoners serve their sentences in upstate, mostly rural and conservative districts.  About 80% of these prisoners are black and Latino, and mostly come from urban areas.

The effect is significant.  For example, according to a study done by the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, George W. Bush would have lost Florida in 2000 by 80,000 votes had ex-felons been allowed to vote (even taking into consideration that most ex-felons would not have voted at all, and 1/3rd would have voted Republican).

There are many districts across the nation that only exist in whole or significant part by virtue of these city-based prison populations.  For instance, Florence, CO: 69.47%; Gatesville, TX: 58.37%; and Avenal, CA: 44.67%.  Sixty percent of Illinois prisoners are from Chicago; 99% are counted in outstate areas.

To his vast credit, on August 22nd, 2010, Governor David Patterson of New York, signed legislation banning the practice of counting these prisoners in areas other than their homes and to which they planned on returning.

(These rural areas already have an agreement with and routinely forbid inmates from lingering in the area after their release, much less settling there.  Further, the prison systems routinely place city prisoners as far away from their homes as possible to “discourage” family visitation and community “contamination.”)

Eighteen European nations do not deny the right to vote to prisoners.  Even South Africa counts prisoner votes.  Canada ruled that denying prisoners the right to vote “denies the basis of democratic legitimacy.”

Forty-eight states—all but Maine and Vermont—deny convicted felons the right to vote (“civil death”).

Voting is not a privilege.  Voting is a basic right that defines citizenship.

               Dr. Publico

Category: VoteCensus
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2 Responses
  1. […] relevance today, confined to describe a fairly marginal aspect of the prison phenomenon, the voting rights of […]

  2. […] American Tribune has spoken at length to the postbellum (Black Codes and convict leasing) origins of the modern American prison system.  But that does not fully address what continues to drive […]

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