Reentry Articles

Can the Incarcerated Vote in the November General Elections?

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By Gisele Nguyen-Gill

“Until today, I didn’t know I could vote. This institution, by not providing me with the necessary information, deprived me of my right, my civic duty as an American, to vote,” a detainee in Orange County Jail wrote to the Jail Project -Unlock the Vote Team on April 2018.

Throughout the country, there is widespread misconception that those who are incarcerated are not eligible to cast a vote. Some jail officers, local election authorities and detainees themselves do not realize the incarcerated have civil rights that are protected by the Constitution. Civic-minded U.S. citizens on the outside and those on the inside can make their voices heard by registering to vote in the General Election on November 6, 2018.

What is the ACLU - Unlock the Vote Campaign’s Purpose?

To increase awareness and demystify the voting process for eligible detainees, the ACLU, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending the principles of liberty and equality, has collaborated with community partners to launch Unlock the Vote (UTV), a voter education and registration campaign, aimed to reduce barriers to registration and voting for justice-involved and justice-impacted individuals in Orange County and Los Angeles County. To do this, the ACLU SoCal-Jails Project mails information to those who are incarcerated, registers formerly incarcerated individuals after their release from county jail and also registers family and friends to vote.

By informing the disenfranchised communities inside the Los Angeles and Orange County jails, the UTV campaign aims to increase access to voting for at least 23,000 people and their families. Historically, these folks have been denied their right to register without sufficient information to register and cast a ballot.

According to the ACLU So Cal, more than 60,000 people are booked annually into five county jail facilities in Orange County alone. At any point in time, there are approximately 6,000 people incarcerated and more than 50% of those incarcerated have not been convicted of a crime.  (LA County jail is the largest in the world. Data is currently unavailable.)

What are your right to vote in California?

In California, if a detainee is a U.S. Citizen, 18 or older and mentally stable, they have a right to vote unless they are currently serving a State or Federal prison sentence or currently on parole. To break it down further and simplify who can vote in county jails,  the following individuals are eligible to vote.

  • If a detainee is in county jail awaiting trial or on trial for any crime, for a misdemeanor conviction, for probation violation, for felony probation or for serving a jail sentence under Realignment (AB109), they can vote. 
  • Detainees who are not eligible to vote are those who are awaiting transfer to a state or federal prison for a felony conviction, a parole violation and/or serving in a state prison sentence under a contract with a county jail.  

If I’m eligible, what steps do I take to get more information about UTV?

If a detainee is eligible to vote, they can obtain helpful UTV materials and toolkit on how vote by contacting the ACLU Jails Project - Unlock the Vote, 1851 E. First Street, Suite 450, Santa Ana, CA 92705. 

Why vote?

Your right to vote is a civil right that is protected by the laws in our democracy. Unlike other countries in the world, you have a choice! Your actions and votes matter in electing the following: members of Congress and the Senate who writes the laws, the Governor who signs bills into law, Judges who interprets the law, the Sheriff who runs the county jails, the District Attorney who decides which criminal case to prosecute and guides sentencing and many other local offices. and Your vote can also affect local and state initiatives and bonds that can have a dramatic impact on our lives.

If you are incarcerated, we hope you are informed and inspired to act and vote in the November General Elections.  The ACLU Jails Project - Unlock the Vote appreciates receiving letters with  questions or comments like the above mentioned individual who vigorously values her civic right to vote. The writer concluded in her letter, “..thank you for providing me with the brochure and for restoring my right to vote. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”

Gisele Nguyen-Gill, CEO, MBA, ACB, CL, is a writer, teacher, public speaker and business owner.

Resources for Children of Incarcerated Parents

According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parents. This accounts for 1 out of every 28 children, which is up from 1 in 125 children in the mid-1980s. The report states that having a parent incarcerated hurts children educationally and financially. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 52% of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates have minor children.

Incarceration splits up families, so it is important that we talk about the effect it has on children and not just on the individual serving time. Children of incarcerated parents may experience anxiety, depression, traumatic stress, survivor guilt and other behavior issues. They may have trouble with sleep and difficulty concentrating.

Last December, Pacific Reentry Career Services attended "Children of Incarcerated Parents: Trauma, Toxic Stress and Protections, the 2016 summit put on by Friends Outside of Los Angeles County. The event helped shine a light on the necessity of recognizing the effects of incarceration on children whose parents are locked up. While our work here at Pacific Reentry Career Services focuses on helping clients find employment following release, we also recognize that supporting families is an important part of our work for anyone in the reentry field. Many of those released are parents, and having a stable job with a steady income is an important part of supporting a family. For those supporting children, we have listed some useful resources below.

Families & Criminal Justice
The mission of Families & Criminal Justice is the prevention of intergenerational crime and incarceration. Families & Criminal Justice is based in Los Angeles and has programs for incarcerated parents as well as for the children of incarcerated parents. Their website includes a useful list of publications for those wanting to read more on the effects of incarceration on families.

Friends Outside of Los Angles County
Friends Outside provides no-cost services in English and Spanish. They have a number of programs that include family communication support, family events, support groups, transportation assistance and more. They can also help coordinate supervised visits between qualifying incarcerated parents and their children who have an open case with the Department of Children and Family Services, and they prepare children and their caregivers for visits.

POPS The Club
POPS The Club started at Venice High School in 2013 and has since expanded to other schools in California and Minnesota. This organization establishes clubs for high school students experiencing the Pain of Our Prison System (POPS) through having an incarcerated parent. The clubs provide emotional and community support for participants. They also publish the writing and artwork of participants. Plans are in the works to start clubs at more schools.

Root & Rebound "Family & Children Toolkit"
Root & Rebound recently released their "Family & Children Toolkit: A Primer for Families Supporting their Loved One's Reentry." This guide goes through things friends and families can do to help their loved one before and after release. There are also tips for rebuilding relationships following release, information on family reunification and details about how therapy can help.

Sesame Streets Toolkit for Young Children
Sesame Street has created an excellent resource for young children of incarcerated parents. The kit includes a DVD and booklet for children, and it includes information for caregivers on how to talk to young children about incarceration. The materials are in both English and Spanish.

If your organization supports the children of incarcerated parents, and you would like to be listed here, please contact us.

Taking a Gender-Responsive & Trauma-Informed Approach to Reentry

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Last month we attended the Reentry Solutions Conference in Ontario, California. I attended a session called “Why Gender Matters: Addressing Gender-Responsive and Trauma-Informed Approaches to Reentry for Justice-Involved Women.” The session reinforced a lot of what has gone in to how we have designed our approach to mentoring formerly incarcerated women in their search for meaningful employment and rebuilding their lives post-release. While much of what we do is useful for people of all genders, we specifically wanted to focus on women for our mentorships and individualized services because of the specific needs they face following release from jail or prison.

What is a Gender-Responsive & Trauma-Informed Approach?

In order to help women transition back into their communities following release from jail or prison, we need to address the realities specifically facing justice-involved women. Dr. Barbara Bloom is a Professor of Criminal Justice at Sonoma State University and Co-Director of the Center for Gender and Justice. At the Reentry Solutions Conference, Bloom explained that a gender-responsive approach is based on the lived experiences of women and girls. It includes trauma-informed, relational and strength-based approaches rather than a gender-neutral approach, which is based on the lived experiences of men and boys and is then applied to all genders.

Because justice-involved women have a high likelihood of having experienced trauma, services and programs need to be designed with that in mind. Bloom explained that we need to adjust organizations so that trauma survivors can access and benefit from services. This means things like avoiding triggering trauma reactions and focusing on building healthy relationships. As the panelists explained, formerly incarcerated women have high rates of domestic violence following release, which means modeling healthy relationships is extremely important in order to help break the cycle.

Rebuilding Trust

Perhaps the biggest barrier to overcome for women transitioning back to their communities is learning how to trust others again. Patty Ayala, MSW is a Case Manager at the Women’s Reentry Achievement Program (WRAP) through the Solano County Sheriff’s Department. She shared stories of how hard it is to help women rebuild trust and explained that it takes numerous people in a woman’s support system to help her rebuild trust. This includes men and women from different backgrounds and both justice-involved and non-justice involved,

Rebuilding trust happens at every level. It takes place in how we commit to appointments with clients and follow through on the things we agree to do. For this reason, it is essential that a gender-responsive and trauma-informed approach include a strong commitment to follow through and the building of safe spaces.

Designing Reentry Programs with Women in Mind

For justice-involved women, a job helps build stability. This can lead to securing housing, improved self esteem and, more importantly, reuniting with children. While there are many struggles shared by those in the reentry community, it is important that we also acknowledge the differences for various groups.

In her presentation, Bloom explained that compared with men, women have more severe histories of sexual and physical abuse. Women also have a higher prevalence of mental and physical health problems and are most likely to have been convicted of a nonviolent crime. In addition, Bloom pointed out that women often respond differently to treatment and correctional supervision. When it comes to designing programs to help the reentry community, one size does not fit all.

This concept was further reinforced by Edward Latessa, PhD during his keynote address at the Reentry Solutions Conference. Latessa is a professor and the Director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati. Latessa encouraged service providers to not use the same program for every client. In fact, he said research shows that intensive treatments for lower risk offenders can actually increase recidivism. When we take this into account with many women who have been locked up for nonviolent offenses, it becomes clear that reentry programs need to be designed around the specific needs of women.

Some Final Thoughts

It is also important to remember that gender extends beyond just men and women. Trans people are also locked up and face additional struggles within a system that is not always very accommodating to those outside the binary gender system. It is necessary to also develop programs that address the unique needs of this part of the reentry population. In addition, we need to account for race and how that adds different experiences. Overall, this is a reminder that we need to shape our programs to each client’s needs according to his or her experience if we are going to help them achieve reentry success.

Vanessa Perez of the Time for Change Foundation and Dr. Edwina Perez-Santiago of Reach Fellowship International also participated in the gender panel at the Reentry Solutions Conference, and I encourage you to check out their organizations as well as those of Bloom and Ayala, which are linked above.