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Archive for the ‘Civics’ Category

Fifty years ago on August 1, 1966, Charlie Whitman, a former Marine and University of Texas student, murdered his wife and mother then went to the top of the central tower at the university in Austin and for 96 minutes fired randomly, killing a total of 17 people and wounding 31. All hell broke loose then. Last week in Las Vegas hell broke lose again and it took my memories back to that day fifty years ago.

I was in the English building next door to the Tower waiting for our professor to show up for a class on how to teach Shakespeare to high school students. Funny how I remember that. After ten minutes the professor hadn’t shown up so we rose to leave. I was closest to the door and first out into the surprisingly crowded, chaotic hall. Someone said, “You can’t go outside. Someone’s shooting from the Tower.” Like an automaton, I turned and parroted, “We can’t go outside. Someone’s shooting from the Tower.”

Our classroom faced away from the Tower so we were able to look out the windows at students and teachers crouched behind trees, cars and bushes. The view from the top of the Tower gave the shooter a predatory view of everyone below. Those 96 minutes were an eternity. When it was over and we were released, I remember walking across the Main Mall right under the Tower. There was an endless line of ambulances parked in the narrow inner campus road. Bodies and blood were everywhere and students were sobbing. In the stifling heat, the pools of blood seemed to swirl in puddles on the pavement like it was alive. It was hypnotic, something I never forgot.

We all went back to our dorms and apartments and watched the news tell us this was the first mass shooting in American history. It was easy to watch the news then. In Austin there was only one station, KLBJ, that belonged to Lady Bird Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson’s wife. They controlled the airwaves. 

Classes were suspended the next day; the University cleaned up the blood; we went back to school. There were no memorials and no counseling was available for any of us. We were the “first” and there was no precedence. The university seemed to want to cover it up. They were afraid it would impact the university’s reputation as well as registration. Conversations about “it” were not encouraged.

At last, fifty years later, the University has created a memorial garden in honor of those who died or were wounded on that August day so long ago. The survivors were invited and recognized. It only took fifty years.

https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/fiftieth-anniversary-tower-shooting/

Now we are so used to these mass murders that our law enforcement is trained and our schools and communities provide counseling immediately. Ironically, August 1, 2016 was the day that the new gun carry law in Texas went into effect, allowing licensed gun owners to bring their guns on campuses! When is enough enough? It is beyond my understanding how a country that requires a driver to pass a driving test, have a license and car insurance, cannot get sensible gun control laws passed.

The terror in Las Vegas took me back to Austin fifty years ago.  While I go about my work, I’m remembering, just like we did in 1966.  I know the lives of the survivors of this carnage are changed forever. They will never forget that beautiful fall evening full of music and love, followed by mass terror and murder. They have lost their innocence and some of their families and loved ones. It is horrific. When is enough enough???? 

This picture says it all:

 

 

 

And yet there is more to consider besides the guns, the violence, the carnage and the hate. There is the history. Among the many quotes attributed to Churchill,  “History is written by the victors.” In America, we have written our history well to reflect the success of the white man, including the claim of worst massacre in history.

Actually that’s nowhere near true. Thanks to Wikipedia, we can easily call up a list of Indian massacres, and violence against the Irish, Italians, Chinese, Africans and anyone else who was an “other.” Here’s a list of the worst massacres of Native Americans in our history. https://listverse.com/2016/07/19/10-horrific-native-american-massacres/

Because white people were the victors, we wrote the history. Thus the “first mass shooting in American history” was in Austin, Texas in 1966. Because I was a young college student, I believed it until much later.

Our nation has been built on violence. We have all the stats, all the reasons, all the common sense, all the bodies and all the blood to stop this violence with sensible, bipartisan gun regulations that at least equal our laws about cars and driving. But all we are getting is our political leaders offering “thoughts and prayers for the victims.”

Seriously? Is that the best our leaders can do? Is this the least we will accept? It’s not just our leaders, it’s all of us who keep turning our heads because the “timing isn’t right.”

 

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As we were escorted through the corridors and elevators by our security hosts, I expected us to get our coats and head back to our vans. Instead, we lined up in another long hall. I thought we were going to take a group photo. That would be nice. While we waited, I started to chat with those aroundScreen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.34.12 PM me. (Imagine that hall lined with guests and men talking into their sleeves.)

Right next to  me was surely the most compelling and yet controversial guest in the box, Rafaai Hamo, PhD, a Syrian refugee. Dr. Hamo lost seven members of his family including his wife and a daughter in a bombing in Syria, creating a family of refugees. A two year journey of grave hardship brought Dr. Hamo, his son and three daughters to America in December to make a new home. http://mashable.com/2016/01/10/state-of-the-union-guest-humans-of-new-york-syrian-scientist/#1SHGi9wi4Gqt  He was a lovely and very kind man. I was honored to meet him.

With him was his translator and Brandon Stanton, the well-known creator of Humans of New York http://www.humansofnewyork.com. Brandon had done a national story on Dr. Hamo and was accompanying him on this very unexpected part of his journey. We chatted quite a while because Brandon was leaving later that night to drive all night to start visiting New York prisons and prisoners. Naturally, I was fascinated. His compelling words and photographs can be found all over the internet http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amos-irwin/what-humans-of-new-york-g_b_9253134.html

It seemed like we stood there about an hour.  Finally I said, “This is a long time to just take a group picture.” Everyone started laughing. “Is that what you think?”  Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. We were waiting to meet the President and have a picture taken with him. Oh my goodness. Nobody told me that! It was definitely worth the wait.

The President had worked a very long day, prepared for and given a one hour speech and then met at least fifty people and smiled for photographs. And he was charming and looked great. What did I say to him? I thanked him for visiting a prison and told him how important that meeting was to those inside. I said I wished Mrs. Obama would visit a women’s prison too. He said visiting a prison had been an honor. My honor was representing all the women and men behind bars. Imagine, an ex-prisoner meeting the President of the United States. I never envisioned that in my prison cell!

It was late when we got back to the WH and our guests were waiting. Dianne gave me the straight skinny on watching the address in the First Family’s Theater. Those big red chairs were very cushy; they had popcorn and drinks; some people were just as messy as when they went to the movies at home. Yikes! Oh, and it was a totally bi-partisan group, some D’s and some R’s, so there was a lot of chat.

Then our pumpkin carriages, er, I mean our WH vans gathered us up and suddenly we were back at the Sofitel saying Good Night. It was the end of a magical adventure, but not the end of the story. . .

Sue Ellen and President Obama

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In the dark with the swirling snow, I couldn’t tell you where we were or what door we entered, but the light in the hallway was shockingly bright and the hall was lined with men talking into their sleeves, watching everyone. No smiling. Very serious. Very efficient. Coats were hung, purses and cell phones left behind. No cameras allowed. (None of us were happy about that.) Efficiently we were taken by elevator to the upper floor that led to the viewers boxes and escorted to our seats. The First Lady’s box holds 24 seats. The rest of the large circular balcony holds more seats for others with invitations from their Congressional representatives. It was packed and buzzing in a rare “we’re expecting the President” manner.

The House chamber is divided down the middle, Republicans to the President’s left and Democrats to his right. As Congressional leaders made their way inside, we could look down, recognizing our own representatives plus those big names we see on the Sunday morning talk shows.  Kyrsten Sinema, one of our AZ Congresswomen who also serves on Gina’s Team’s  Leadership Council, saw me and waved from the floor. Was I really in the First Lady’s box or was I dreaming?

The Supreme Court justices entered, very solemn and dignified, dressed in their black court robes. They don’t smile, neither do they ever stand or applaud for anything the president says.  I think it’s some kind of protocol. The same with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in full uniform with all the glory of their decorations. No smiling, standing or applauding.

In our box, we were buzzing too. I was sitting next to Mark Luttrell, Republican Mayor of Shelby Country Tennessee (see, they are bipartisan) and a former BOP warden. Mark has a pretty progressive reputation in the world of corrections and I was picking his brain. Right in front of me was Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. I talked to him about computer labs in prisons and he was very supportive of the idea although it horrifies traditionalist. Everyone in the box had a story and a vested interest in the President’s speech, but two of my favorites were Earl Smith and Edith Childs. They were just darling human beings. You can read about all of the guests on the WH blog:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/01/10/meet-guests-first-ladys-2016-state-union-box

When Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden entered the box, we knew it was time. Then the House sergeant at arms announced those eight famous words, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” The President entered the chamber and began the walk towards the podium  shaking hands all along the way.

In our box suddenly four white square padded cushions appeared and were passed down the four steps. It’s not a huge box and no space goes unoccupied. These are for staffers. Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 8.45.00 PMBelieve it or not, Valerie Jarrett, Special Advisor to the President, sat down on the step at the end of our aisle right next to Mark Luttrell which allowed us the opportunity to talk. Mrs. Jarrett is considered one of the most important people in the White House and there she was, sitting with perfect posture on a cushion in the aisle of our box. I asked her how she could define her time working in the White House. She smiled a lovely smile. “It’s the most important and exciting thing of my  entire life,” she paused, “except for the birth of my daughter. Nothing can compare to that.”

While we chatted and watched the President make his way to the podium, everyone was clapping and smiling, while those close to the center aisle were maneuvering to shake his hand. It was very collegial and they seemed like they actually liked each other. It looked. . . hopeful.

Then the President started talking and it was hard to ignore the conduct of the Congress. As much as we hear how divided our congress is, when you are looking down at it physically and symbolically, it’s stunning. There’s an invisible line right down the middle of that historic, important chamber.

As he often does, the President started out with humor and then got down to the issues. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sotu (You can see the entire address here.)  He would say something and the right side of the chamber (Dems) would stand up and loudly applaud; the left side (Reps) of the chamber was silent.  When he asked these questions below they sounded like questions I’ve heard all my friends express, conservative or progressive, yet half the room cheered while the other half was looking at their email or Facebook.

  • First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? (Applause & silence.)
  • Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? (Applause & silence.)
  • Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? (Applause & silence.)
  • And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst? (Applause & silence.)

Yes, I said Facebook. Remember I mentioned we all had to leave our phones behind? Not our representatives. They all had their cellphones and iPads;  we watched them from above as they checked email, caught up on Facebook or their social media of choice. Obviously I’m old school. My parents would have killed me (figuratively speaking), if I’d gone to hear a president speak (any president) and not minded my manners and paid attention. Here were our elected officials from our Senate and House of Representatives, and many were simply rude. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe that’s OK in this world of technology, but I hope not. They say politics is an ugly business and it keeps getting worse. Does it have to be? Is this who we are as human beings, as Americans? Our elected officials are the role models for our children and I don’t think we’d let our children behave that way.

Never has an hour rushed by so quickly. The President’s final words were “Thank you, God bless you. God bless the United States of America” and it was over. We were already standing to applaud and as we stood, the cushions disappeared, the aisle cleared and our security detail was waiting for us. Mrs. Jarrett had slipped out, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden then led the way for the rest of us. There were twenty three Americans in that box who will never forget that evening. And there was still more to come. . .Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 8.44.31 PM

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Included in the excitement of actually being interviewed on the WH driveway was my request to Hannah for some saltine crackers and tea bags. Still felt queasy but determined Not To Be Sick. Cannot throw up on the President or First Lady.

Dianne and I rushed back across the park in the still freezing wind for a taxi. Back to the hotel for rest and lunch. Poor Dianne. Instead of bright and cheerful, I was pathetic company and my lunch was crackers. Another cab, this time to the Department of Justice for our meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. All the while I’m thinking, “This must be a mistake. They’re going to call and say, “Sorry, we meant the OTHER Sue Ellen Allen.” But they don’t call. They did mean me. Still pinching myself.

We’re dropped off at the huge, imposing Department of Justice Building (http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/jmd/legacy/2014/06/3
IMG_39040/75RFKBuilding.pdf ) that covers an entire block and has over a million square feet of space. There were also imposing guards who told us we could not enter there. Walk around to the other side of the building. No begging or pleading allowed. After seven years in prison I’m familiar with that so we started the trudge. At mid-point, we were met by other guards who turned us back. We can’t go that way. But, But, But…Back we trudged and yes, we were freezing. We walked around again to the other side of this huge building and met even more guards who didn’t want us to pass. Finally after some radio conversation, we were allowed to go to another entrance where police cars were stacked up and barricades piled. We learned there’d been an unexpected demonstration and now we were finally allowed to enter. We were 25 minutes late for a meeting with the Attorney General!

But it wasn’t over. We entered a lobby with even more security. Much More. And a long line. We could be there a long time. I started to sweat when my phone rang. Help was on the way. The AG’s staffer magically appeared and we were whisked through all the security barriers, up the elevator and down long, impressive corridors in the million square feet of space. Finally we reached a lovely conference room with a table beautifully set for tea. We were a long way from prison.

Eight faces turned to greet us. Very late, very embarrassed. But Mrs. Lynch is not only brilliant and accomplished, she is charming and gracious and made us feel right at home in this incredible space where other brilliant people have IMG_3924gathered and history has been made. Besides her staff, there were two other SOTU guests, Mark Luttrell, Mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, and Kathleen O’Toole, Police Chief, Seattle, Washington. Mayor Luttrell has a long history in criminal justice reform, including serving as a warden with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And Chief O’Toole has been recognized for her innovative approach to community policing focused on transparency. The conversation centered on innovation and how to solve the enormous problems both communities and inmates face upon reentry. Dianne was able to tell Mrs. Lynch about Gina and how incarceration impacts families for years afterwards.

Because of our lateness, Chief O’Toole and Mayor Luttrell had to leave, but Mrs. Lynch and her staff stayed to hear our stories and Gina’s Team’s idea for IMG_3936reentry, a market driven, public/private sector program to involve the entire community. She also gave us a tour of her offices, built during the recession when they had access to incredible artists, sculptors and craftsmen who created an incredible space to represent justice in our country. I wish it was always balanced and fair but I know it’s not. And it’s a far cry from the way prisons look. Nevertheless, I was grateful to be there and impressed by the team I met. I’ve sat at many conference meetings IMG_3939where all the attendees from the CEO down were men except me. This was the first time that of the ten people at the table, only two were men, and that included Mayor Luttrell who was a guest. The energy felt different to me, more open, more aware, more hopeful, more compassionate.

Now we had a choice. Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema is on our Leadership Council and has supported our work since we started. She invited us to a reception to meet Vice President Joe Biden whom I would love to meet. I hate to miss anything but not this time. I was still queasy and I knew I needed my energy for later. We only had about two hours before we met the car downstairs so we skipped it. I hated that. Bless Dianne for being sympathetic.

Finally we dressed; we checked each other out; it was time to go. White House, here we come…IMG_3982

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After hospital and emergency surgery, I have spent the month at a much slower pace, trying to recuperate. “Rest,” my doctor said. Easy for her to say, but there were some things too important to put on the back burner, namely ATHENA.

This takes some background info. Last year through divine providence I met MarthaMertz, the founder of ATHENA International (http://www.athenainternational.org/). Twenty-eight years ago, Martha had a vision about women and leadership. I highly recommend you read her book, Becoming ATHENA, for the history of her very important journey. It is powerful, intelligent, and inspiring.

On her quest to learn how women lead, Martha realized that women use eight principles for leadership. When I read her book, I “got it” immediately and thought, “These are rules for all of us to live by. These would be wonderful taught at the prison.” I asked Martha if she would like to go to prison to do a program for Gina’s Team, our organization that brings educational programs into prisons and juvenile facilities.  That request is usually greeted by stunned silence, but Martha also “got it.” She immediately said, “Yes.”

So last December, Martha went to Perryville Prison in Goodyear, AZ for Gina’s Team to conduct an “ATHENA World Café” to introduce the women in prison to these principles. Here they are:

 The ATHENA Leadership Model*

Live Authentically. Being true to yourself. An inner clarity centers in core beliefs, grounded in ethics, and honed through reflection. A sense of purpose, pursued with integrity. Authenticity is the single most important quality of leadership. Leaders know their values and remain true to them.

Learn Constantly. Continuous development of skills and competencies, regardless of your level of achievement. Understanding built on experience, intuition and self-directed learning. The art of listening; the ability to learn from role models, bad as well as good. Leaders seek knowledge.

Advocate Fiercely. Passionate, personal devotion to something that deeply matters. Acting with unswerving commitment tempered by respect and compassion. Generating a powerful force for good. Leaders champion what they believe is right.

Act Courageously. The willingness to stand alone and speak the truth, to question assumptions or challenge the status quo. The determination to act honorably, consistent with your values, even in the face of fear or loss. Leaders dare.

Foster Collaboration. Valuing the gifts each individual brings, with a perspective that is global and a spirit that is inclusive. Deepening understanding, awareness, and knowledge through diversity. Encouraging participation from those who are often overlooked. Leaders welcome others to the work of leadership.

Build relationships. Connecting genuinely with those around you. A willingness to bond with others, profoundly and productively, with trust and respect; to reach beyond status and self-interest in search of meaningful connections. Leaders engage, empower, and trust.

Give Back. Leaving a worthy legacy for your community and the world. Recognizing that with success comes a responsibility to enrich the lives of others. Generously devoting voice, position, and resources to advance the greater good. Leaders serve.

Celebrate. The age-old practice of gathering to mark important times. Strengthening bonds of unity through creative expression, rituals and traditions. Memorializing moments, triumphant or tragic; sharing joyful or solemn reflection. Leaders remember and rejoice.

The women in prison also “got it.” The feedback was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. We then went to prison officials to see if we could teach it as a continuing program.  We were delighted when the answer was Yes. And so Martha’s new journey began. She has taught ATHENA Leadership in China, India, Dubai, and all over Europe and the United States, always to women who already have a measure of success and education. This would be the first time in prison where 50% of all inmates enter with less than an eighth grade education.  Rarely do they think of themselves as leaders and for some, this could very well be a paradigm shift.

Martha didn’t want to teach this alone. She wanted to team teach with me. I was thrilled and deeply honored. As a former prisoner, there is no doubt I have an “inside knowledge” of how things run as well as what inmates’ expectations are.  However, since I am a former inmate, we had to get special permission for me to be allowed back in to teach this class and are grateful that the administration shared Martha’s vision and decided to allow it. Once all this was accomplished and class schedules were set, we attacked the curriculum. Our first class was June 23.

Research done. Curriculum completed. Handouts copied.  All very professional. We are ready. But we are women and so we also had another serious conversation, “What are we going to wear?” There are lots of rules, beginning with no orange (no problem for me), no brown or khaki, no low-cut or sleeveless tops, no short skirts, no excessive jewelry. But I do know that inmates are starved for color so I always recommend that to our volunteers. Finally we really are ready.

 To be continued…

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Vanity prevents me from posting a picture of me, exhausted and feeling guilty because I haven’t written in my blog since May 9.  So why didn’t I? Purpose and passion in the name ofGina’s Team. Our little grass roots organization is growing faster than the oncoming bullet train. I am sure Gina is leading a team of angels to provide the miracles that come our way.

I decided the best thing would be to share our activities and the amazing people who are helping us so here is an encapsulated version with a picture of our team: 

 

 

 

 

Perryville Prison. April program: Control, Assault, Delete, a powerful play on domestic violence by Linda & John King. Please check out their website http://www.helpfixthehurt.org/  These two incredibly brave parents lost their beautiful daughter to a brutal act of domestic violence. They have turned their pain into power, impacting lives with their passion to help others. 

Mingus Mountain Academy.  April program: Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman went up the mountain with us to speak to these 12 to 18 year old girls about the importance of setting goals as they rebuild their lives. Mistyand her Valley Leadership cohort presented each girl with a journal to record her goals. Arizona’s Family Channel 3 accompanied us to film a story on Gina’s Team and our activities. http://www.azfamily.com/news/Ginas-Team-122374394.html  Thanks, Channel 3, Brandy and Mike for such a positive story.

Mingus. May program:  Author and speaker Vickie Mullins spoke to the girls about rebuilding lives with positve memories. Through the generosity of Mingus and Vickie, each girl received a copy of Vickie’s book, I Want You To Know Me…Love, Me. Her website, http://iwantyoutoknowme.com/, explains who the death of a young friend provided  the inspiration behind this book that has impacted so many lives. You may want a copy yourself for someone you love. 

Estrella Jail program: Gina’s Team has made two trips to the jail to visit some of the women there with a positive message of hope. We are grateful for the opportunity. 

ASU students from a class in the College of Social Transformation held two very successful events to promote awareness about incarceration in America. Gina’s Team worked with them the entire semester to formulate these successful events. We are so impressed with their desire to impact change in their communities. This is a powerful generation. 

Gina’s Team partnered with the National Advocacy and Training Network   (http://www.natn-az.com/home) to train volunteers for our new program called Welcome Home, designed to assist women newly released from prison as they seek to successfully reenter our communities. We are blessed with a group of enthusiastic and deeply committed volunteers. 

Gina’s Team has been involved in several events at the ASU Art Museum’s recent art experience about incarceration entitled “It’s Not Just Black & White.” http://asuartmuseum.asu.edu/exhibitions/viewevent.php?eid=824  After a  powerful three month long event, we were crushed to see the black and white stripes disappear and the wall come down in May. Gregory Sale’s vision cast a spotlight on incarceration in a unique and meaningful way. 

After nine months of class, I was part of the graduating class of the ASU GenNext Nonprofit Academy. Thanks to ASU for awarding me a scholarship to be a part of this incredible experience. In prison I missed the opportunity for the intellectual challenge that ASU provides in so many ways to our community. Budget cuts to education are a serious mistake in our state. 

After a great deal of dreaming and planning, Gina’s Team has received permission from the Department of Corrections to start several new programs inside the prisons. 

1. Kingian Nonviolence. Behind the wires violence is too often a way of life. We are introducing this course to the teens in the minor’s unit in Tucson.  We are grateful for this opportunity to teach young men an alternative to violence. http://phoenixnonviolence.org/ 

 2. ATHENA Leadership. Martha Mertz, author of Becoming Athena and founder of the internationally acclaimed Athena International  award (http://www.athenainternational.org/) is taking her expertise behind the wires to Perryville. After speaking there in December, she realized this was a place that would benefit from the eight principle of leadership highlighted in her book. These eight principles are simple rules for living.  They are:

Live Authentically                   Learn Constantly                             Advocate Fiercely

Act Courageously                    Foster Collaboration                       Build relationships

Give Back                                       Celebrate

Gina’s Team is proud to bring Martha and her wisdom to the women of Perryville. 

3. Parenting. Many of the women at Perryville are mothers who miss their children desperately. Learning to be a better parent is a key to successful reentry and reconciliation. Gina’s Team is bringing Parenting Arizona to Perryville to teach classes in this important life skill. 

We are also partnering with Jeanne Robinson and Jessica’s Operation Orange to bring precious books to all the prisons in AZ as well as more juvenile facilities. Please check out www.jessicasoperationorange.com for information about how one all too common mistake can change so many lives. The inspiration lies in how Jessica and her parents have turned their pain into power, helping others through her tragedy. Jessica’s mother  Jeanne  is a force of nature, impacting lives in such positive ways. 

Turn your pain into power. That’s what all this is about. I know that we are alive to help others. The best way is through the wisdom we gain when we survive a tragedy. That’s what my motto is all about. 

                                Been there. Done that. Now how can I help? 

Find your passion and  purpose. It will enrich your life in ways you cannot imagine. I promise.

 

 

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 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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