(White Plains, NY) – In the ever persistent problem of how to stop recidivism, leaders at the Westchester County Jail are now turning their attention to civic engagement and getting inmates reintroduced to society by exercising their voting rights.
“It’s a complete restorative justice process,” Westchester County Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Louis A. Molina tells BlackWestchester. “When inmates return to the community we want them to understand how the community operates, beyond just being a good neighbor, by looking past just the couple of blocks where they live to become a part of the community as a whole.”
In the United States, seventeen states do not allow inmates to vote when imprisoned. This sanction is removed, however, once they are set free. In New York, the general rule is that you can vote after incarceration for a felony conviction while you are on probation, or once you have completed parole. In these cases, your voting rights are automatically restored, but you have to re-register in order to vote. The reregistration is the complicated part.
Jen Lackard heads up the Station of Hope prison ministry at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon. Her work finds her in the midst of many ex-inmates and their families.
“I noticed that a lot of people were unaware about civic responsibilities. We had men and women coming home from prison who were eligible to vote but did not know what that meant,” Lackard said. “Families were disenfranchised by the experience. Even though they never lost their right to vote, they were not inclined or motivated to vote at all.”
That a person might feel disconnected from human society after months or even years of being incarcerated should not come as a shock. This disillusionment is a major contributing factor to what many feel is a “revolving door” in the courts. The most recent report on the topic from the New York State Department of Correction and Community Supervision indicates that 29 percent of female ex-offenders and 42 percent of male ex-offenders returned to custody within three years.
So when Lackard approached Deputy Commissioner Molina recently with an idea for a new program that not only addresses low voter turn-out among ex-inmates but also tackles recidivism head-on by getting ex-inmates intellectually vested in their communities and country, he was all ears.
The County formulated a curriculum for an in-jail series of classes designed to help inmates understand how to engage with the community from a civics standpoint and the importance of every single member of the community.
Molina, the highest-ranking Latino in law enforcement in Westchester County is quick to point out that it’s not just about registering people to vote, but ensuring they have the knowledge to make their own decision.
“Helping them understand who leads them and helping them understand the different branches of government, at the local, state and federal levels” is at the core of the seminar series. Deputy Commissioner Molina believes the seminar series will be a potent tool in the County’s fight against recidivism because the program “supports the whole person.”
The program is unfunded, but the County has enlisted the help of a number of groups who have volunteered to do all the heavy lifting involved. In addition to Lackard ministry at Grace Baptist Church, the County has teamed with the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society of Westchester, the National Action Network, Westchester for Change, the NAACP, the WESPAC Foundation, and Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, among others. Representatives from each group are going to be educating different program populations in the jail, both men and women, on the importance of civic engagement.
That’s huge. A large number of the population in the Westchester County Jail are detainees, and are technically qualified to vote in an election, if even just by absentee ballot. Of course, it’s ultimately up to each inmate or ex-inmate to decide whether or not to vote. But having matriculated through the County’s new civic engagement program, at least that decision will be an informed one.
“I am very excited to have the opportunity to reach people who may feel they do not have a voice, who feel marginalized, and I feel that this is a really great opportunity to show why civic engagement is something that everyone should be involved with,” said Susan Van Dolsen, co-founder of Westchester for Change. “You may have gotten a bad rap, but the only way to effect change is to participate. No matter who you are, you have to use your voice.”