By Ezekiel Caligiuri
It’s 2014. It’s another election year again, but nobody behind the walls and fences in Minnesota prisons care.
Why should we? After all, we can’t vote. A lot of us have been locked up for several administrations. Others have been getting arrested and piling up points on the criminal justice grid since very young ages.
I have never voted in my life. It is one of the many things I had to discard from having any relevance in my life. Taking sides in the political process has become less fulfilling to men in prison as cheering for a team in the NBA finals.
I know how to get prisoners in Minnesota to care: let us vote. Does it matter? It does.
Currently, prisoners housed in Minnesota prisons have no say in a political process that has overwhelming impact on the circumstances of their lives. There is a widening separation between America’s 2.3 million incarcerated men and women from the society they come from.
The gap comes from restrictions imposed not only while incarcerated in our prisons and jails, but also upon release: severely limiting employment, housing, travel, and access to certain benefits, and maybe most especially our right to vote.
Too easily the idea of the prisoner or the felon has been disregarded as less than that of a citizen, without rights to access the things non-convicted citizens regard as their essential civil rights. The understanding that our vote is something we forfeit with our conviction has spread without much conflict from men and women behind bars who typically become more concerned with navigating the new terrain of living within ever-constricting prisons and later vastly restricted free-world environments.
The beginning of the process of re-humanizing individuals that live in our prison system would be to let the incarcerated (and all felons) participate in the democratic process. I think Minnesota, that has traditionally seen itself as more tolerant and progressive than most of the country, should lead (or catch up to) the fight for this issue.
Voting rights are imposed by individual states. In Minnesota, felons’ right to vote can be restored after their term of incarceration and their time on parole or probation expires. However, currently there are close to 10,000 prisoners incarcerated in the state of Minnesota, and close to another 50,000 who are disenfranchised due to parole and probation restrictions. That’s almost 1.5 percent of the state’s population unable to vote in local and national elections.
As prisoners we are disenfranchised. Most notably, it has come to refer to the taking of a person’s right to vote. In a nation where the right to vote is at the core of the democratic philosophy, taking away a person’s vote is akin to taking away a person’s value as a human being.
History has taught us that the stripping of the right to vote has an insidious past that at several significant periods has been used as a weapon to control and diminish certain segments of the population. The vote has long been the primary way to silence voices contrary to the advancement of those already in power, the vote and incarceration.
Ezekiel Caligiuri is a writer currently incarcerated at the correctional facility in Lino Lakes. He is co-editor for the Lino Ledger, the monthly newsletter of the incarcerated population.