Archive for the ‘Voting rights’ Category

Part 1:
NEVER would I expect to say that; NOT a passing thought on my list of goals. But Sunday night, January 3rd at 7:33 my phone rang. ID unknown. I ignored it. They called again. Then again and left a message. “Ms. Allen, this is  XYZ at the White House calling. My number is blahblahblah. Would you please call me back at your earliest convenience?” Of course, like the movies, my first, second and third thoughts were, it’s a joke. So I Googled the White House and called the operator. After I identified myself, I asked her if this person and number indeed belonged to the White House, or the WH as they refer to it. “Yes, that is one of our staffers.” Oh my goodness. OH MY GOODNESS. I guess I’d better call back.

This nice young man (everyone is young to me) Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.01.26 AMfirst thanked me for my prison work. Nice, I thought, but get on with it. Why are you calling me? “I’m calling to invite you to be a guest of the First Lady in her box at the State of The Union address on January 12th.”

Yes, my entire life flashed before me. “Seriously? SERIOUSLY” He laughed, assuring me he was quite serious. “But you know I’m an ex-felon?” Again, he assured me they knew all about me. Yes, I guess they do.

He was actually politely waiting for me to accept and bring a guest, all at the WH’s expense. Yes, YES of course I’ll come and I’ll invite Gina’s mother Dianne as my Plus 1. We had a nice chat about our work at Gina’s Team and what President Obama would like to accomplish in criminal justice in his last year in office. He told me I was sworn to secrecy until the WH announced the list of guests. No Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. I agreed and then I calmly told him I had to go because Downton Abbey was starting and I couldn’t miss it. (Good grief, who hangs up on the WH?)  He assured me he was also a fan and hated to miss it but he had more calls to make. The best part of his job was making these calls.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.06.08 AMI then calmly proceeded to watch the first episode of Downton  and then I called Dianne to invite her. After she stopped stammering, she proceeded to give me all the reasons why she couldn’t come with me. Hates to travel; nothing to wear; has a root canal scheduled for Monday and a mammogram on Tuesday; and of course, nothing to wear.

“Gosh, Dianne, let me see: White House – Root canal; White House – Mammogram. Which one sounds better?!  Are you kidding me???

Sheepishly she said she’d love to go with me and we started to giggle. It was going to be a great trip.

I spent the week ransacking my closet. What to wear to the WH and SOTU? I researched the previous SOTU pictures of the First Lady’s box and I got some history. This tradition actually started with Ronald Regan and has gained prominence as the media got hungrier. There are plenty of pictures of the guests. Mostly they are dressed in black, with the first ladies in some lovely color. OK, so I need to find color in my closet. Black slacks, of course. It’s cold in DC and I’m not dealing with a skirt. I started pulling jackets out. That’s pretty much my wardrobe, black slacks and colorful jackets, all designer labels from thrift stores. I try to keep the price tag under $15.

After lots of trying on, I settled on a turquoise silk Kasper jacket with black lapels. Yes, from a thrift shop. I thought the color was good and I planned to wear a special pin that would look good on that lapel.

Almost twenty-five years ago when I had a fashion jewelry company named for me, we were commissioned by the Congressional Club to designIMG_4169 a pin for First Lady Barbara Bush to commemorate A Thousand Points of Light, celebrating volunteerism in America. We were invited to Washington where we had a VIP tour of the White House; then we were special guests at the Congressional Club annual VIP luncheon honoring Mrs. Bush where she was presented with the pin I designed. Additionally, every guest received a smaller version to remember the day.

In a story as long and complicated as my life’s journey, a year later  we lost our company in a hostile take over, were indicted for securities fraud and my road turned into Perryville Prison in Goodyear, Arizona, where this story begins. I had gone from the White House to prison where I met Gina and so many others.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.23.51 AMI served seven years, the longest and darkest of my life. On March 18, 2009 I walked freely back into the world, blessed to have the support of generous friends. My vision was Gina’s Team, an organization that would help the women I left behind and all the other women in prisons everywhere.  Gina’s parents and I co-founded it; started with nothing and built a prison program to remarkable success teaching leadership based on the ATHENA Leadership Model.

But honestly, we were also working on air and adrenalin. Prison work isn’t a popular cause so donations are always a challenge. I worked without salary and we had a devoted staffer who worked part time for minimum wage. We had enough work for a team of people and juggled as fast as we could. We were looking for ways to expand but couldn’t see how.  And then the White House called…

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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. 


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