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Archive for March, 2011

 I can’t vote. I have voted since I was eighteen but now I’m an ex-prisoner and I cannot vote. Disenfranchisement exists in many forms in many states. Sometimes you get your vote back automatically upon release. Some times you have to go to court to ask permission of a judge.

In three states, Vermont, Maine, and Washington, inmates are allowed to vote during their incarceration. In Canada all inmates are allowed to vote. In America, inmates can run for office in all states, but they cannot vote for themselves, or anyone else. 

Why can’t I vote? Partly because I live in Arizona, one of the most restrictive states for restoring voting rights. I have restitution to pay. Any ex-prisoner with fines or restitution cannot vote. It is considered a debt. But other people have debts and can vote. People declare bankruptcy and vote. People walk away from their upside-down mortgages and vote. Voting is a basic right of all Americans and yet inmates and ex-felons are denied that right even after they have served their time and supposedly paid their debt to society.

In the case of many ex-prisoners, the fines racked up can never be paid because they can’t get a job to even begin the process. In Arizona, there are over 100 licenses and jobs related that ex-prisoners cannot have. Here you cannot work as a barber, cosmetologist or nail technician, drive a sanitation truck, or work as a mortician if you have a felony. A DUI is a felony. One person with a DUI cannot be a barber. How can you repay fines if you can’t even get a job?

I know mothers newly released from prison who want desperately to take care of their children. In this economy, jobs are scarce. As an ex-prisoner, jobs are even more scarce. If their crime is related to drugs, they cannot get food stamps. But, hey, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer says, “Have I got a deal for you.”  Society puts up immense barriers, then acts really surprised when the ex-prisoner returns to prison within three years. I suppose voting is just a small part of that. I’m worried about voting while they are worried about survival. But here’s the thing, if you feel like you are a part of a community and you have a voice in the community, you are less likely to want to commit a crime against that community. We put our prisons in far away places and forget about them. The inmates are faceless and no one cares. Why should we care about people who have committed a crime? Because if you don’t care about them, they will certainly not care about you and the cycle will continue.

 Surely there is a better way. We are smart people. We can do better with our prisons, our prisoners, our ex-prisoners. Ninety-three percent will be released into our communities. We turn our backs, they commit more crimes and then go back. The prison budget goes UP, UP, UP while education budgets go down, down, down. My vote is just a tiny part of this huge problem but having a voice is a vital part of democracy. We are a democracy where  5.3 million Americans cannot exercise the right to vote. Why is that punishment added to incarceration, separation from families, inhumane treatment, and fines? I want to know.  

Check out this website for more information about this issue. 

http://sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=133

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Two years ago today I was released from Perryville Women’s prison in Goodyear, AZ. It was a beautiful March day as it so often is in this part of the world. I was up at 4 o’clock in the morning.. The release process included a lot of waiting, but finally about 10 o’clock the huge chain link gates slid open and I was able to walk out, free, into the welcoming arms of my friend Carolyn. 

I was starving and she took me appropriately to Paradise for my first meal. The choices overwhelmed me, but I knew whatever I had must include tomatoes. I had missed them so much in seven years. So I ordered a huge, lovely salad and welcomed glass of ice water. The girl behind the counter handed me an empty glass. Where was my water? I’d been gone a long time and now discovered that there was a buffet of drink choices to my left that included tea, soft drinks, lemonade and coffee. But where was the water? My friend pointed to a small black button on the drink buffet that said, in tiny letters, Water. So I pushed it and was horrified to get lemonade. Oh, my gosh! Were they now going to charge me for that? Maybe they would send me back to Perryville. As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. I was supposed to pull, not push. Obviously I had a lot to learn. 

And learn I have. It has been an amazing, full and fulfilling time. Today I was the guest speaker at the Phoenix Rotary 100 to about 200 guests. Someone asked me how I survived prison. Faith, focus and purpose. Oh, and a sense of humor helps, although some days I cried enough to float the place away. Why it’s still there, I do not know. 

The Rotarians were lovely and welcoming. It was a perfect way to celebrate this anniversary, this strange anniversary of a journey that gave me my purpose and passion. 

Here are some numbers I shared with the Rotarians to think about. MA, WA, and AZ all have about 6.5 million people, give or take a few hundred thousand. MA has a prison pollution of 11,000. WA has a prison population of 17,000. AZ has a prison population of 40,000. (According ADOC, 6,000 are whom they call “criminal aliens.”) We release 20,000 a year and that sounds really good, but here’s the bad news: we intake 22,000 so the numbers keep rising. Currently the corrections budget is just under 0ne Billion Dollars. Yes, One Billion Dollars. 

Do we have that much more crime? Not really. We just send more people to prison for longer sentences because we are Tough on Crime. The alternative seems to be Soft on Crime. I propose there is a third choice, Smart on Crime. Check out what conservative politicians are saying nationally about this idea at www.rightoncrime.com. Former legislators who started as Tough on Crime are now looking at smarter alternatives and becoming Smart on Crime. 

That’s my passion and that’s what I am celebrating this year. I’m also celebrating new friendships with amazing people in my life that thrill me with their loving and generous spirits. Thank you all. I send all my love and blessings.

Think about your last two years. Have you found a passion and purpose that you are celebrating?  I promise, it makes life worth living. I’d love to hear what yours is….

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