Justice in America Episode 5: Excluded From Democracy
A deep dive into the history and future of disenfranchising people who have been convicted of felonies.
For an estimated 6.1 million Americans with felony convictions, their punishment extends all the way to the ballot box. In 48 states, people with felony convictions are barred from voting, either temporarily or permanently. And twelve states, including Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming, restrict at least some people’s voting rights—even after they have served their whole sentence, including supervised release.
This episode we go into the history of what is commonly known as felon disenfranchisement. We look at the racist history of disenfranchisement laws and talk about where the laws remain especially restrictive. We also learn more about Desmond Meade, a community leader in Florida, and his fight to win a high-stakes ballot referendum in the state this November.
And we talk to Norris Henderson, the Executive Director of Voices of the Experienced, or VOTE, in New Orleans. Norris is a formerly-incarcerated community leader and advocate, who played a big part in a recent effort to re-enfranchise people in Louisiana. We’ll talk to him about his experience, the uphill battle in Louisiana, and their exciting victory.
For more information, check out these resources.
Want to know what the laws are in each state? Here’s a link to the Brennan Center’s map of voting rights. And this 2016 Sentencing Project report, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement estimates the impact of these laws in each state.
Also check out the Sentencing Project’s great introduction to voter disenfranchisement, called Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer.
In 2016, the Maryland legislature overrode the Governor’s veto and restored voting rights to those convicted of a felony upon their release from prison. Here’s a video made by Communities United, a grassroots community organization that played a big part in that victory.
A video of Desmond Meade’s great speech at the Unrig the System Summit in February. Also, a slightly older but still great clip from 2014 of Desmond on Democracy Now, where he talked about his personal struggles and explained how he got where he is today.
From conservative George Will in the Washington Post: “There’s no good reason to stop felons from voting”
Check out this 2011 law review article by Marc Mauer, Voting Behind Bars: An Argument for Voting by Prisoners
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Henderson: So when people start thinking about what skill sets people have, they don’t see us in that same light that the value added. ‘Oh yeah, he was in prison. He is a jailhouse lawyer.’ But does that translate? And I would say it translate even more so because I know it from both sides. I know it in theory about what criminal justice is supposed to look like, but then I know it in practice because I was in one of those cells, as opposed to somebody reading the textbook in the criminal justice class trying to explain to people what prison’s about.
Clint Smith: Hey everyone, I’m Clint Smith.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and try to explain what it is and how it works.
Josie: Thank you everyone for joining us today. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_podcast, you can like our Facebook page, you can just find us at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes. We would always love to hear from you.
Clint: At the top of the show we heard from Norris Henderson, founder, executive director of Voices of the Experienced or VOTE and someone who’s near and dear to my heart as a fellow New Orleanian. Uh, I was born and raised in New Orleans and Norris is someone who I’ve become close to and has become close to my family and the important, important work that he does. And so we’re far into the season now and we appreciate you sticking with us. Today we’re talking about something a little bit different. It’s an issue that involves more than just the criminal justice system and it’s an issue that Norris has been heavily involved in for many, many years. What Norris will tell you later in this episode is that he spent almost 30 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, which is one of the biggest maximum security prisons in the country. And during the time he was incarcerated and since he’s been released, he’s been working nonstop on this issue of what people call felon voter disenfranchisement.
Josie: You know, I got to say I really hate that name, felon voter disenfranchisement, in part because on this show we really discourage the use of the word felon, but also because it sounds so clinical and passive and it really is something that has a major impact.
Clint: Yeah, it’s not great.
Josie: So what quote “felon voter disenfranchisement” is, is the exclusion of people with felony records from being able to vote. But you know, even that’s kind of a passive phrase. So let’s be a little bit more explicit. In most places our government doesn’t allow people with felony convictions to vote and that ban on voting maybe temporary or permanent. It may apply only for certain felonies, but as a general rule, if you have been convicted of a felony, you can bet that you will lose your voting rights for some period of time. Here’s a clip from 2016 of formerly incarcerated members of Communities United, a grassroots group in Baltimore talking about the fight to retain basic voting rights.
Man #1: You know, I was taught that democracy is where everyone is free. It’s freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to vote. Voting, its a basic right that we shouldn’t even have to be fighting for. What I see every day in Baltimore is not free.
Man #2: Most of my adult life, I was locked up, I was in prison.
Woman: When I was told that I couldn’t vote, that was something I couldn’t comprehend
Man #3: That just like make me feel like I’m nothing and no body. When we talk about democracy or freedom of speech and the constitution, um, guess what? For most of us that don’t apply though.
Clint: So as we like to do, here’s some background. To a great degree, America has always had disenfranchisement laws. Between 1776 and 1821, eleven state constitutions disqualified, quote unquote “criminals” from voting. By the time 1868 rolled around, three years after the end of the Civil War, that number had reached a whopping 29 states. The rules varied across states just like they do now, but there were a number of crimes that still could potentially lose you your voting rights. Fun fact, you could actually get disenfranchised for dueling, so stay out of trouble kids.
Clint: In a lot of places, these laws weren’t really enforced all that much. After all, only white men with property could vote in the first place. But after the Civil War, that’s when things really started to ratchet up, which is another way of saying things got really racist. After Reconstruction, some southern states basically rewrote their criminal disenfranchisement laws just to ensure that blacks were excluded. And this is kind of when we start to see the serious racial implications of this disenfranchisement.
Josie: Right. So southern states were already focused on criminalizing black people in this post Reconstruction era anyway. In the South, people realized that the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, but basically made an exception for prison labor and if you were a prisoner you could work for little to no money. And so as you can imagine, a lot of people in the South liked this idea. So prisons began filling up with black people very fast. In Alabama in 1850, only about two percent of the prison population was nonwhite. By 1870, that number was seventy four percent. And these disenfranchisement laws became a lot more popular once people realized that they could be used as a tool to keep black people away from the ballot.
Clint: So experts say that two things happen at the same time, one, lawmakers, especially in the South, made a ton of new criminal laws that were intentionally designed to impact black people and keep them from the polls, straight up. Number two, at the same time, they were putting into place broad disenfranchisement laws so that basically they made it much easier to be convicted of a crime and much harder to retain your right to vote once you’re convicted. Here’s another clip from Communities United. This is Chris Irvin from the organization, Lazarus Rite, and Reverend Cortly Witherspoon discussing the historical trend of disenfranchisement.
Chris Irvin: The systemic issues in America that prevent returning citizens from exercising their full rights. There’s a direct line of policy initiatives. Their timeline goes back to the 1800s.. Voting rights is very much attached to humanity and that whenever anybody or any government institution wanted to dehumanize someone, they went after the right to vote.
Clint: So let’s fast forward to now. Today, if you have a felony conviction, whether or not you can vote depends entirely on what state you live in, and we’ll post a map on our website at theappeal.org so you can see exactly which states have which laws, but here’s a quick rundown.
Josie: If you’re actually physically in prison, serving time, there are only two states where you can vote and that’s Maine and Vermont.
Clint: If you have a felony conviction and you’re not currently incarcerated but you’re still on parole, fourteen states would allow you to vote. And DC will let you vote too.
Josie: Now if you have a felony conviction, but you’re not in prison and you’re not on parole, but you are on probation, there are twenty states where you can vote.
Clint: And finally, if you have a felony conviction but you’re not in prison, you’re not on parole, you’re not on probation, there are thirty eight states that allow you to vote.
Josie: So at first maybe that doesn’t sound so bad. I mean if you’re completely done with your sentence, you can eventually vote in thirty eight states. That’s a majority, but let’s talk about those twelve states. These are the twelve harshest states when it comes to voter disenfranchisement.
Clint: And we don’t want to get too into the weeds here because we know we’ve already thrown a lot at you, but the bottom line is that these states restrict voting rights even when a person has served their whole sentence, including parole, probation and all different types of supervised release.
Josie: And in three of those twelve states, Iowa, Florida, and Kentucky, if you have any felony conviction, you lose your voting rights forever. Your only hope is to petition the governor and ask them to restore your right to vote, and that rarely happens.
Clint: Here’s what all of these laws mean in terms of actual people. At any given time, there are about 4.5 million people on probation or parole nationwide. Combine that with those people in prison or jail and under all forms of correctional control, and you have about 7.3 million people at anytime serving a sentence in our criminal justice system. Of course, some of those people can vote depending on their state, but not everyone is serving a felony sentence and some people are no longer serving time but still can’t vote. So this isn’t exactly an overlap with the disenfranchised population, but it is just emblematic of how many people this affects and how many people it touches.
Josie: According to the Sentencing Project, the number of disenfranchised people is about 6.1 million nationwide and that’s because of mass incarceration. Now, here’s a question. Do you think that those people are more likely to be in the states like Maine and Vermont where you can vote in prison or in states like Florida where you are banned from voting ever again if you have a felony conviction? If you guessed Florida, you’re correct, and this is an important point because these twelve states aren’t random. The places that are more likely to lock you up are also the places with the harshest collateral consequences and many of the states with the highest minority population also have high incarceration rates and many of the states with high incarceration rates also have very restrictive disenfranchisement laws.
Clint: So we did some analysis and this is what we came up with. If you take a look at the states with the top ten highest black populations in America, nine of them do not let you vote if you are serving any type of sentence. Nine out of ten. Five of the ten blackest states restrict your right to vote even after you’ve served your entire sentence. Meanwhile, the two whitest states in the nation, Maine and Vermont, are the only places where you can vote while you’re in prison.
Josie: So here are some other facts that we want to share to really drive home this point, and many of these come from the excellent work done by the Sentencing Project and others. People in the twelve harshest states who have completely finished their sentences, make up more than half of the entire disenfranchised population in the nation. 3.1 million people live in those twelve states, have served all their time in prison, probation and on parole, and they still can’t vote.
Clint: In six states, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia, more than seven percent of the adult population cannot vote.
Josie: More than a quarter of people who can’t vote because of a felony conviction live in Florida. More than a quarter. 1.5 million people.
Clint: Which is just a staggering number. And as always, the system is much harder on black people. One in thirteen black adults in the entire country can’t vote. About 7.4 percent. Just think about that. Compare that to the approximately 1.8 percent of non black people in America that can’t vote because of felony disenfranchisement.
Josie: And these black disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In four states, more than one in five black people can’t vote because of felony disenfranchisement. So that’s a lot of numbers and let’s just talk a little bit more about what this really means.
Clint: America has always had institutional processes for restricting voting. We know that, as we mentioned before, only white men who owned property could vote when America just started. Eventually it expanded by class and race and gender, but as you know, there are a lot of technicalities there. Even when black people had the right to vote, poll taxes and literacy tests made it incredibly difficult and the violence of the Klu Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council made it an existential threat to people’s safety to even approach the polls. So black people may have had the right to vote on paper, but in practice, voting was basically impossible until the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Josie: So there’s a history and a relationship here between being black and not being able to vote and being locked up, that’s undeniable and it is part and parcel of America’s history, but there’s something else as well. These laws quite literally remove entire populations of people from civic life. They remove groups of people from the political process. They remove groups of people from being able to actually hold their elected officials accountable, and if you can’t vote, it stands to reason that elected officials are going to be less invested in you as a constituent. They’re going to spend less time on your community because there’s a little in it for them if you’re not going to show up to the ballot box.
Clint: And if the main way to change a law is through the democratic process then disenfranchise people are just straight up out of luck. This is related to what we were just saying about America’s history of weaponizing and restricting voting. Felon disenfranchisement is functionally about political power and voter suppression.
Josie: To that point, as we mentioned, the three harshest states are Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida. So these are the places where if you’ve been convicted of a felony, you’re basically not going to vote. Period. In all three of these states, a governor has in the past fifteen years, issued an executive order restoring rights to some individuals. In Iowa, in 2005, Democratic Governor Vilsack issued an order granting the right to vote to people who had completed their sentence. Then two years later in Florida, Republican Governor Charlie Crist enacted automatic restoration of rights for people convicted of certain crimes who had served their entire sentence. And then in 2015, Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, did the same. In the last days of his tenure he issued an executive order restoring the right to vote for people convicted of nonviolent felonies who had completed their sentences and also fulfilled other criteria.
Clint: Notice that none of these are particularly courageous policies. I mean, it seems self evident that someone who has served their time and completed their sentence should naturally be able to vote, but none of them gave the right to anyone who is still serving their sentence. None of them gave the right to anyone who was still in prison and in Kentucky it was only available to a very narrow subset of people with felony convictions and they still had to go above and beyond to get their rights back. But still it was something and then in all three of these states, conservative governors swooped in and changed the laws again. In 2011 in Iowa, six years after Governor Vilsack had issued his order, Governor Terry Branstad overturned it, just immediately made it impossible for anyone with a felony conviction to vote again. In Kentucky, the new Governor, Matt Bevin, overturned the previous executive order only a month after it had been issued, but in Florida, Rick Scott went even further. He completely reversed course and fundamentally stopped re-enfranchising anyone with a felony conviction. Now, Florida has the most restrictive law in the country.
Josie: Yeah, so all of this is extremely depressing. Here are these three governors that went out of their way to try to re-enfranchise people in this state and then after them come these conservative governors who just erase any progress they made, any changes that they made. So what do we do if we want to make sure that people get the right to vote, what’s the best way of doing that? Well, as always, it depends on the state. Right now, there’s some positive movement happening around re-enfranchisement. In New York, Governor Cuomo announced recently that he would re-enfranchise 35,000 people previously convicted of a felony. In Louisiana, the legislature recently passed a law giving the right to vote back to formerly incarcerated people five years after they complete probation or parole, so it’s not the most progressive, but it’s definitely better than it was before. And actually in Virginia, which is one of the twelve harshest states when it comes to voter disenfranchisement, the governor did something pretty interesting a few years ago. The former Governor, Terry McAuliffe, wasn’t able to just issue an executive order granting people the right to vote because disenfranchisement is literally written in the state constitution. Virginia is one of only four states where that’s true, and he had actually tried to restore rights by executive order before on a technicality, and he was blocked by the courts. The legislature was mad, but he managed to get around the entire executive order issue by restoring people’s right to vote individually. And so in the end, he restored the rights of almost 200,000 people individually using an auto pen. It was the most he could do really to give people the right to vote, but it doesn’t help people now that he’s not in office who were sentenced after his term.
Clint: Now, we’ve talked a lot about why Florida is particularly bad, but just to recap, a quarter of all disenfranchised people in America live in Florida, like a quarter of them. 1.5 million people. And black people are of course hit the hardest here. Twenty one percent of otherwise eligible black people in Florida cannot vote because of their felony conviction. So almost a quarter of Florida’s black population cannot vote simply because of a felony conviction. It’s a staggering number.
Josie: Unbelievable. And again, let’s talk about Governor and Senate candidate Rick Scott Y’all, this man has done basically everything he can to make it hard to vote. He signed a bill that reduced early voting and made registration harder. He got rid of early voting the Sunday before election day, which is traditionally known as “souls to the polls” when lots of people, particularly black people, often go vote after church. And even after Hurricane Matthew devastated areas of Florida, right before the voter registration deadline, he refused to extend the deadline by a few days, the courts actually had to force them to do it. And predictably, as we mentioned, he’s been terrible on voter disenfranchisement even compared to his Republican predecessors. So in Florida remember, the only way that people can get their right to vote back is by petitioning the governor. Now, when Jeb Bush, remember that guy, was governor, he restored about 75,000 people’s right to vote in two terms or over eight years. When Charlie Crist was governor, he doubled that number in about half the time, so he restored over 150,000 people’s right to vote in just one term. In just four years. I’ll give you a guess. How many people’s rights do you think Rick Scott has restored in eight years of being governor?
Clint: The answer is three thousand. Three thousand people in eight years, which is only one percent of what his predecessor did, but it gets worse. There are no rules on whose rights he can or can’t restore. He even said that quote, “There is no law we’re following.” He said that in 2016. He said, “We get to make our own decisions, based on our own beliefs.” An example of how backwards this is is that he regularly turns people down because they’ve gotten speeding tickets since being out of prison and he’ll turn people down for drinking occasionally, even though that’s obviously legal. And in June, a black man named Erwin Jones was applying to get back his right to vote and during the hearing, a member of Scott’s cabinet asked him how many children he had and said, quote, “How many different mothers to those children?” Beyond being wildly inappropriate and not so subtly racist, this also has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not someone should have their right to vote. One of the most basic tenants of citizenship in the United States.
Josie: Right. And clearly he doesn’t give the right to vote back to most people, but let’s talk about who does get their right to vote back in Florida. Basically one of Scott’s major beliefs seems to be. ‘I’ll restore your rights if you vote for me.’ So in 2013, there was one guy who had been convicted of felony voter fraud in 2010. Voter fraud is extremely rare, but this guy was actually convicted of gaming the exact system that Rick Scott ostensibly wants to protect, and he petitioned the governor and during the hearing he said to the governor, ‘I voted for you.’ His right to vote was restored, and there are other examples too of Scott granting people their right to vote if they say they’re conservative. So it’s bad.
Clint: Its really bad.
Josie: Yeah, it is, but, but the good news is that there’s an opportunity this November to give formerly incarcerated people in Florida the right to vote again.
Clint: Desmond Meade lives in Florida and is formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated. He spent his time in prison on a drug charge, but today, after graduating from law school, Desmond is one of the most important community leaders in all of Florida. Currently, he is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and along with other community leaders throughout the state, Desmond has built an incredible coalition of organizations pushing to restore the right to vote.
Josie: Yeah. Desmond got almost 800,000 people to sign a petition to support a ballot referendum, which will now appear on Florida’s ballot in November. The referendum gives voters the opportunity to restore the right to vote to previously incarcerated individuals. It’s a tough fight. Sixty percent of voters have to vote in favor of the referendum in order for it to pass, but if it does, it’ll be major for Florida.
Clint: Here’s Desmond talking about the campaign.
Desmond Meade: You say felons, you’ve probably said felons, we use the word returning citizens because we know that individuals, (applause) because we know that individuals who’ve made mistakes are still somebody’s son and daughter and father and mother, that they’re are human beings first, and so rather than give them a scarlet letter of shame, they carry on them for the rest of their lives, we decided to change things and started calling them returning citizens. And so now here we are, 1.68 million returning citizens living in the state of Florida where we have elected officials, where we have a system that refuses to restore our civil rights back to us when we’ve served our time. As of last week, we have qualified the Voting Restoration Amendment for the 2018 ballot. (Applause) The system said that we would never get it off the ground, but the people said yes we could, and they did. The system said that this poor formerly homeless drug addict, African American male didn’t have the skill set to even lead an initiative, but we’re now at the cusp of transforming not only the state of Florida but this country.
Clint: So we’ll see what happens in Florida this November, but as we’ve said, there are other places that have seen some victories on this front. Louisiana, for example, just passed a voter restoration law, so now we’re going to talk to Norris Henderson, founder and executive director of Voices of the Experienced or VOTE, who has had a major role to play in this fight. Norris will join us from his office in New Orleans.
Clint: We’re here with Norris Henderson, who is the founder and executive director of VOTE NOLA and someone who I feel a special affinity to as someone who was born and raised in New Orleans. So I’m especially thrilled to have him on the podcast. Norris, thanks for joining us.
Norris Henderson: Thank you all for having me.
Clint: Definitely. So how about we start with you just telling us a little bit about what VOTE Nola is, what you all do and some of the projects that you’re working on these days.
Norris Henderson: Oh, VOTE was actually started while I was in prison. The Louisiana State Penitentiary. Our organization inside was called the Angola Special Civics Project. At the time when this country was experiencing a lot of, um, prison uprising across the country we collected a group of guys and made a conscious decision that well, we could burn the place up and we’d be sleeping on the yard, or, we can try to figure out how we change our circumstances. And so as opposed to trying to change our conditions, we started working on how to change our circumstances. And we started proposing legislation to Louisiana legislators and tried to help address, uh, you know, the over incarceration, although that term hadn’t been coined, at that time, about the length of sentences that folks around us were serving ourselves included. And um, we just kept saying to ourselves, maybe if some of us get out of here, we can kind of like raise this concern to the general public in drawing attention to it. Because what a lot of people didn’t fully understand, because at one time, life in prison in Louisiana didn’t necessarily mean life in prison. I mean, lifers could be paroled, uh, serve ten years and six months on a life sentence could get out of prison. But then during this truth and sentencing and the drug wars started and then everytime the United States Supreme Court made a decision to abolish the death penalty, Louisiana got tougher and it went from ten six parole eligibility to twenty years in 1973. And then the death penalty got abolished again in ‘75 and then they upped it from twenty years to forty years parole eligibility. And then the death penalty got abolished again in 1976. And then the state of Louisiana and just said, you know what, we’ve just gonna abolish parole benefits for anyone serving a life sentence. So, 1979 actually became the first true life in prison sentence in the state of Louisiana. And so since that time we, and I always use the plural we, because I didn’t do anything by myself, but a collection of us kind of just put our heads together, several months work in the prison law library and we did, uh, a ten state survey of our neighboring states, California, New York, some of the liberal states, to find out what was the punishment in these other places, whether or not they was commensurate with Louisiana. And what we found was really shocking that although somebody in Texas may get a hundred years, they literally was getting out in less than ten years. So we started trying to figure out, well, what did they do? And so they had all kind of accelerated good time programs, they have good time for education achievement, good time for not just good behavior but for volunteering and doing stuff. And so we crafted a piece of legislation that actually was House Bill 709. This was in the, uh, I want to say about ‘87, ‘88. And uh, we actually got lucky because we found a state rep to actually introduce it, it was Representative Naomi White Warren. And the legislation didn’t go anywhere, it kind of like came out of committee and died on the House floor. Two years later, well three years later in 1990, she reintroduced the Bill and the Bill actually became Act 790 in 1990. And what it did was it created parole eligibility for folks who had at least thirty years and it created parole eligibility for everybody but the lifers. And so although, and that became kind of what they call Geriatric Bill is 2045 Bill, it created parole eligibility at twenty years incarceration and reaching the age of forty five. And how they come up with the age forty five, this professor who was at Tulane at the time, Professor Jonathan Turley, who was over the POPs programs, the Project for Older Prisoners. And uh, he coined this term about criminal menopause, that menopause sets in at forty five years of age. You know, around that time while people’s criminal’s criminogenic propensities kind of like start to wane. And so the legislature just kinda like bought that line, hook, line and sinker. And so we got kind of like stuck with the 2045. And it did wonders. It worked for everybody in the population because guys was convicted of crime that didn’t carry a life sentence became, some of them became immediately eligible for release and started getting out. Even to this day, people are still getting out because of that 1990 legislation, but the people who actually put in the hard work, uh, were the lifers and uh, you know, lifers was kind of like left hanging in the balance.
Clint: And you were one of the people who were serving a life sentence?
Norris Henderson: I was one of those, yeah, myself, the guy who was the co-chair of the Civics Project, Biggie and uh, well we just kept, we didn’t give up. We just kept going because we didn’t really have the luxury to quit. So we kept right on. And so we just kind of like started looking everywhere that we could kind of like start educating people about the system, how the system actually works and um, you know, being in a climate that we were in in Louisiana, we know it’s going to be challenging. To be honest I never thought it would take this long to kind of like achieve somethings that we have recently achieved, but uh, it’s been a real journey. To say the least.
Clint: And we mentioned, it’s important to mention that you are, you’re someone who was formerly incarcerated. You were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Louisiana and it’s helpful for people to know, I think, how long you spent in prison.
Norris Henderson: Okay. Ah, yeah. My sentence was life in prison without benefits of parole, probation, suspension of sentence for a period of twenty years. But before thaI got to the twenty year mark, the law changed and when the law changed, the law changed three times, went to forty, then it went with no benefits at all and they applied that to us ex post facto-ly and I did 27 years, 10 months and 18 years on that sentence. And then in March 2003, March 23, 2003, I was released from prison. The judge who sentenced me, not the original judge who sentenced me cause it was another judge by this time, but the judge sentenced me to probation because he realized that my sentence actually entitled me to that type of relief and uh, he felt that I was the perfect candidate for it. So I’ve been home now fifteen years.
Clint: Amazing. Um, and how did you transition, how did the sort of Angola Civics Project transition into VOTE NOLA after you were released? And I guess more broadly, it sounds like you all were doing a lot of work on sort of reforming the very notion of what a life sentence is or should be. Um, and you know, part of what VOTE NOLA does among many things is sort of focus, as the name suggests, on the voting rights of people who are formerly incarcerated. So what did, how did that transition sort of happen and how do you think about why voting rights for folks who are formerly incarcerated is so important?
Norris Henderson: Oh, its huge. And the transition was easy. The uh, the early part because you know, for years folks were going on, even folks that were part of the Civics Project were getting out but nobody was reaching back and it was, it became really disheartening in the sense that, you know, you live in this environment with people for decades and you know, to me, I don’t know how you could forget somebody who you slept next to for ten or fifteen years. But be it as it may when I, you know, kinda like if I ever got out of here, man, this is what I plan on doing and true to form with a year to the day after I got out I went and incorporated VOTE. And how we came up with the acronym was primarily during the meeting at the Civics Project, you know, our whole focus was about building political power amongst our family and friends. And so we came up, you know, this whole thing was about voting. So that’s where the acronym comes from. But how we started focusing on voting rights was primarily because I was doing some research in the law library and actually stumbled upon the fact, by reading our Constitution, that formerly incarcerated people had the right to vote. And I was like, Oh man, that’s the linchpin there, if we could get our folks to show up, we can be a game changer. And so I kind of like coined this term about the sleeping giant. If the sleeping giant ever woke up, you know, it would kind of like change the dynamic of how criminal justice is done in this particular state. And so I always believed that politics played a role in, you know, how people not only wind up in prison, but what their stay was like, you know, because every year, year in and year out, we will see all of these laws changing that’s being applied to us when in fact we weren’t even in the population, you know, in civil society. And it was like, these people are just using us, you know, fear sells. And so they were selling fear to people, we can’t let these people out, we need to make these laws stricter, people are being violent and for the most part folks may have went to prison for a violent offense, but they hadn’t created another act of violence in ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years in some cases. And so we had to try to figure out a way to change that narrative and the only way to do it was, the only leverage that we actually had was to try and start organizing our families and friends as a voting block. And so we started doing that. We created through family and friends, we created some external chapters, Louisiana Coalition to Support Penal Reform and created five chapters throughout the states. So fast forward a few years, I get out and uh, you know, for the first, about the first five years we were kind of a completely volunteer group. I kind of like rounded up a lot of the guys that were part of the Civics Project while I was inside and say, look man, we made a commitment to these guys we left behind that uh, we was going to take care of their business. We wasn’t going to forget them and uh, I don’t know about y’all I’m going to keep my word as best I can. And so we kind of just started moving forward making lil’, you know, some small progress and there was this kind of like really just, uh, you know, the, the VOTE has become the Civics Project on steroids, you know, and I tell guys all the time when they come on board, they’d be like, man, what we’re doing? And I tell them the same thing, this is Civics Project work, we just on a bigger playing field. So all of the skills that are learned in how to be politically engaged. You know one advantage I think we had too, one of our guys in the project who was in Angola, used to work in the criminal courts office. And so this guy knew everything about polling and percents and canvassing and uh, so we just started doing the long distance, you know, we would kind of like look at a legislative district and figure out how many of our folks in that district. Who can we reach out and touch? And we started writing letters to folks, doing mass mailings. Uh, when people got on the phone and called somebody was asking for, hey look, it would, you know, help us if you supported so and so and so, this person is more inclined to vote to do things to help us then to harm us and then we started having some success, you know, we were able to get a few people elected and then we kinda like realized that wait a minute, we really can be a game changer because nobody expect us to show up.
Josie: So on that point about the successes you all have had, um, can you tell us more about the restoration of rights fight in Louisiana? In particular I’m wondering what the law was before your most recent victory and what you guys have been fighting for and what the law is now.
Norris Henderson: All right. What the law is now is to get, it restores your right to vote to people that’s on supervision, that’s on probation and parole. Prior to 1974, our Constitution prohibited anybody who had been incarcerated, it restricted their right to vote unless they got a gubernatorial pardon. In 1974, at the Constitutional Convention that changed and so it restored the right to vote to everybody with the exception that, uh, you were indicted, mentally incompetent, or under order of imprisonment. And so that stayed on the books for two years. Then in 1976, the legislature took it upon themselves to define what an order of incarceration meant and they defined it as a person being on probation and parole. And so it literally stripped people who were in a community paying taxes from voting. And so over the years we have challenged them in the legislature trying to get the law changed. This year, I mean every year for the last since I’ve been home, every other year because we on these subsidy of sessions and then we on fiscal sessions so we like one on one off. So every other year we would be filing legislation, trying to restore the right to vote and didn’t get anywhere. I mean, if we got lucky to come out of the committee, it died on the House floor. If we were able to get it out of the committee and on the House floor, it died in the Senate committee.
Norris Henderson: But this year it was different. Uh, not only did we get it off the House, out of the committee, we got it off the House floor, got it in the Senate, got it out of committee and got it off the Senate floor with one amendment and it went back to the House for concurrence and we were able to get out of committee and so it wasn’t exactly what we wanted. I mean it restored the right to vote, but there’s a kind of exception that folks have to be off of supervision for five years. Uh, but simultaneously we have a lawsuit pending in the Louisiana Supreme Court that’s still challenging the language of under all of imprisonment. And so although we have this, what people says is a monumental win and I’m not going to minimize it because this something huge. We’re still not satisfied with the fact that some people still have to wait. Who for the most part, some of these folks never went to prison, you know, and folks who give probation and walk right out of the courtroom and walk right back to their job or to their home or whatever. And so we’re asking the Supreme Court to really clarify that question for us also. But no, this is, this was a uphill battle.
Josie: Right, right. I was going to ask you actually just about the political context of the fight there because I think, you know, we talk about Louisiana a lot on here because of sort of the extreme, um, criminal justice system that exists in the state. I know you both know that until, until this year it incarcerated more people than any other state. You guys have now been surpassed by Oklahoma. Um, but obviously the prosecutors have a lot of power there. The Prosecutor Association has a lot of power. It’s a mostly conservative state. So I’d love to get a sense of the political context, you know, including who fought for the law, um, who fought against it from you as you are sort of looking back on it just a few months ago.
Norris Henderson: So what was is that we had organized, you know, family and friends and, you know, all the directly impacted folks and we showed up with over 500 people on lobby day and I think that made the biggest difference in a sense of how people saw us. And even the day before the last vote, we were debating what the press release was going to say. And one of the things we kept saying to ourselves, yeah, well, you know, one thing about this whole thing we not term limits, we not going anywhere, but I’m glad we didn’t have to use that statement because it made it, you know, that’s much easier. I think we, uh, kinda like turned a corner in a sense of this state. And you know, when you look at those wins we, our engagement with organizing, educating formerly incarcerated folks about their right to vote and their engagement in the political process has been huge because we, as an organization, we host candidate forums. People turn out in huge numbers. The candidates, always want to participate because they know we’re, you know, we’re a base building organization and although some of our members can’t vote, their family and friends can and you know, their vote is a, our folks’ voice, you know, and people get that now and even more so with the enactment of 636. Yeah, we can be a little bit of a game changer. This sleeping giant has actually woken up, you know?
Josie: Right. So what kind of fights were you facing from the prosecutor lobby? Did you get a lot of pushback from them?
Norris Henderson: They kind of like stayed low key. And I think it’s primarily, this is my speculation on this. I think the speculation was this ain’t going nowhere and they didn’t engage, but at the eleventh hour, if you went back and look at the hearing, one of the legislators say just a week ago, everybody was on board with this. What happened? The DEA start calling y’all? The sherriff start calling y’all? Are y’all afraid these people gonna unelect y’all? So I’m not naive to think that they didn’t engage at some point, at some point, you know, they, like I said again, it was, this was an abbreviated legislative session. They cut it off by month to do a special session, and I, I think they just assume that this is not going anywhere. You know, when it kept resurfacing, I mean, against all odds. I’m gonna be honest, this was kind of like against all odds to get three votes in the House in one week, you know, to get 35 votes, then we get to 51. Then we end up with 61 votes. In the end each step we picked up people along the way, that was kind of like almost unreal. Then they figure, okay, well they got lucky they got but the weekend for the Senate, and so the getting in the Senate committee on a Monday morning, get it out, do whatever we had to do, get it on the Senate floor, a day and a half later, come off the Senate floor, then get it back over to the House to reconcile it? I think at that juncture people realized, wait a minute, something has happened that’s bigger than us. And, uh, that’s what it was, you know, something actually happened that kind of like, this thing just took a life of its own.
Clint: Norris, I’m curious how, you know, obviously you mentioned you spent nearly 30 years behind bars and we’re in this moment where a lot of people have interest in mass incarceration. A lot of people want to do work to end mass incarceration. I’m curious, what is something that you think people in the general public like really misunderstand about prison, generally? Like what is something that people think they understand about prison, but, um, but people aren’t really cognizant of?
Norris Henderson: The, the thing that I think people misinterpret about prison is about what actually goes on inside prisons. You know, people, when I talk to people sometimes, when people hear me speak, people are in awe of the fact that when I tell them I’ve been in prison it’s almost like disbelief. And I’ll be like, well, what do you think I was doing while I was in prison? Most people envision people being in prison is playing dominoes and checkers and playing chess and playing sports. They don’t see people, where as opposed to being engaged in academic activity. You know, I went to college while I was in prison, you know, that, that changed that dynamic.
Clint: So do you? Two questions, one, do you think that people are doing a good enough job of lifting up folks like yourself and the people that you work with who actually spent time in prison, um, and putting them at the sort of forefront? And secondly, do you think that the formerly incarcerated folks have a unique role to play in this space?
Norris Henderson: I just tell people this, no successful movement in the history of this country was successful had it not been led by the people directing impacted. When you look at every movement that goes on, the women’s movement. It wasn’t men in front of their movement, it was women. You know, the women’s suffrage movement, the LGBT movement, the immigration movement is people directly impacted. And I think for some reason people don’t understand how sophisticated people coming out of prison are. Some people just figure, ‘He’s coming out of prison, he don’t have no skills. He’s not going to be articulate. You know, he can’t do this.’ I ran a prison law library for over 20 years. I read every periodical that came in there and every book, I read before I shelved it. I have probably got more people out of prison then probably collections of lawyers put together, but I’m not a lawyer. So when people start thinking about what skill sets people have, they don’t see us in that same light that the value added. ‘Oh yeah, he was in prison. He is a jailhouse lawyer.’ But does that translate? And I would say it translate even more so because I know it from both sides. I know it in theory about what criminal justice is supposed to look like, but then I know it in practice because I was in one of those cells and I can tell you what it’s like to be in the ten by eight cell. Or what it’s like to be working in a field or whatever as opposed to somebody reading the textbook in the criminal justice class trying to explain to people what prison’s about. So yeah, the value added to having people who are directly impacted, involved in the daily activity of the work that’s going on to end mass incarceration is essential. I mean, when you look at the Close Rikers campaign, that campaign would have never got traction had it not been for all of those folks who have been in Rikers to start telling a story about it.
Norris Henderson: You know, this campaign, against solitary confinement, it wouldn’t be having the traction if it don’t be for the Albert Woodfox, the uh, Robert King Wilkersons and Herman Wallace who has spent over four decades in solitary confinement to raise the consciousness of people about what solitary confinement looks like and what it does to people. Um, you know, wrongful convictions. You know, when you think about prosecutorial misconduct, uh, if people didn’t tell these stories people would think, oh, that’s stuff people make up. That stuff doesn’t happen. But when you get a real body telling you stories, and I tell people all the time, I’m like Bill Withers, you know, just use me to use me up. Anything that you need to know about these systems ask me because, because in reality people used to come to tour the prison and I said, ‘You got any questions?’ And everybody be standing around looking, and I’m saying, this is the, this is the only chance you’re going to actually be able to ask somebody who’s in prison about what the wants, needs and desires of people in prison. And people outside will fight for the change of conditions. Oh, the prison needed to be cleaned. The prison need to be that, I used to tell them all the time, check us out, we’re not worried about the prison being clean. We don’t want to be in a prison at all. You know think about it from a different angle. I don’t think, it was a lady that used to come in with us, with our lifers group. She used to always say, ‘Every time I’m in the supermarket and I pass the produce section, I think about you, you know, and I see all the fruit because you always be talking about fresh fruit’ because I’m a vegetarian. And I would tell her that she got the wrong picture in her mind. You should see me in the store buying the fruit myself. So having to re-educate people about how they see and how they perceive a folks is totally different thing.
Josie: Right. So can we talk just quickly about race and racism in Louisiana and how you think that’s played into the fight for restoration of rights? Do you think that that’s been a driving factor in the refusal or the reluctance to change these laws?
Norris Henderson: Oh I think it plays a big part of it because if you look at the actual history of a lot of the stuff that has went down there’s race connected to it. Even when you look at the voting rights piece, when you look at the 10-2 Verdict piece and its embedded in our 1898 Constitution where these folks changed the law primarily to kinda like purify the ballot and to ensure that the white race would stay in power. You can’t tell me that the race didn’t play a part of it. And then when you look at just population wise, you know, we don’t make up but thirteen percent of this state’s population, but we like eighty five percent of the prison population. Matter of fact I’m gonna give you a better example. I was at a parole hearing this morning on behalf of a guy. But while I’m waiting on his hearing to start, I’m listening at another one, it was a white guy and the guy had two, six year concurrent sentences and when one of the members on the parole board started questioning him and the guy was like, ‘Hey man, how many times you’ve been arrested?’ The guy said, ‘Oh quite a few.’ The guy said ‘No, no give me, throw out a number.’ The guy said, ‘Oh forty.’ And he said, ‘Well you’re in the ballpark. But to be exact, you’ve been arrested sixty five times.’
Josie: Oh my Lord.
Norris Henderson: He had just got out of prison from doing nine years. He was a fourth offender and he didn’t get but two six year sentences for burglary and the guy sitting next to me looked at me and I looked at him. I said, had he been black, he’d have had life in prison as a fourth offender. You know, so race plays a big part. Then the individual who I was there for, went to prison at seventeen years old, has been in prison forty four years. And that same guy who questioned the other guy about his lengthy arrests, he was hesitant to give this guy any relief. And it was like, here’s a guy come to jail at seventeen years old, as a child, has been in prison forty four years, has done all the programming you could even think about and this before he even became eligible for release because he just became eligible for release last year.
Norris Henderson: And uh, but they, you know, just grilled and grilled and grilled and grilled him, hoping he says, kind of like ‘Give me a reason?’ You know, guy had really taken advantage of his circumstance and prepared himself really well. And uh, he was granted. But that first guy, if that would have been a black guy, he wouldn’t even have got a hearing to be honest with you. You know, to be a fourth offender. And it’s not like you’re gonna have a release date because his full term date is 2022, which is less than three years away. So it’s not like he’s not going to get out.
Clint: So I’m curious, you know, you all have had some really amazing wins on the state level over the last last couple of weeks and months. I’m curious if you can kind of share what some of the, the upcoming battles you all have, um, what some of those are and what folks should be paying attention to and potentially what they can do to help?
Norris Henderson: Well, the first thing is on this front the work is far from being done. I think this is the, in the drive of a thousand miles I think we took two hundred steps. Uh, we got eight hundred to go. We have to actually go and register those folks, uh, it’s a substantial number of folks we talking about at the minimum of 40,000 people. Uh, and we got a short window to get it done in, you know, we got from now until March 1 to kind of like start reaching to people and educating people. And then by February they actually start registering them because there’s no way for us to register them with the exception of thirty days before the actual effective date. What people can do is for local people, local being people within the state, uh, they can get in touch with us to kind of like continually get educated about what we do and why we do it. Our website is vote-nola.org. They can either get in touch with us, we send out a weekly newsletter to keep people informed about what we do. You can go on our website, sign up, we can kinda like get an email out to you and for folks in different states, I think what folks need to do is start, formerly incarcerated people are an asset in various ways. I mean a lot of our folks we’ve mentored through other formerly incarcerated folks and we have demonstrated through our actions how to be successful, how to be successful in a sense of you just don’t get out after doing nearly three decades in prison and have been out of the decade and half without having a clue. And so I encourage people to kind of like find people in the community that’s doing organizing around criminal justice reform and weigh in, lend a hand, you know, everybody can do something. We had folks in prison who couldn’t read or write, but they was a part of what we was doing because there were guys who were able to pass out the flyers in prison. They were the guys who posted stuff on the bulletin boards. They were the guys who stuffed envelopes and licked stamps before they had those self adhesive stamps. So imagine sending out 5,000 pieces of mail and a handful of guys who had the responsibility of putting those stamps on those envelopes. So everybody can play a role. Everybody can play a role. Nobody’s role is more important than the other. And more than anything else, its, you know, folks just have to be patient and have some unity and believe in each other. And I tell people all the time, help is not what you want to give me. Help is actually what I need. And I think sometimes there’s a breakdown in how people show up because people are by nature caring and helping and say ‘I want to help you,’ but sometimes the help that they want to give isn’t necessarily help that you need. And I think that’s where the biggest thing is that. But I think everybody and I encourage everybody to get involved, get involved and every place you at. And if I can make a plug for somebody because we were working in a national campaign also to restore the right to vote to folks in the state of Florida.
Josie: Yes, Desmond Meade.
Norris Henderson: Yes, and this November they have a, they have a ballot initiative, Amendment 4 in the State of Florida. So if you know anybody in Florida, uh, please, um, uh, support the Amendment 4 to give second chances to over a million and a half people who have been disenfranchised. And you know what’s so tragic when you think about it, there’s no direct correlation between a person going to prison and him losing his right to vote.
Norris Henderson: Everything else a person can, they can own a car, they can own a home, they can travel across this country, they can get a passport. So why is it that the only thing that is really restricted from them is the ability to engage in the political process?
Josie: Right. Right. I think that’s just a perfect, perfect ending and I’m really glad that we’re featuring you on this episode and thank you so much for joining us.
Clint: Thank you so much Norris.
Norris Henderson: Thank you for having us.
Josie: That was Norris Henderson, the founder and executive director of Voices of the Experienced or VOTE. It was so great to talk with Norris today and thank you so much for joining us.
Clint: Thanks for listening to Justice in America. I’m Clint Smith.
Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like us on Facebook at Justice in America, and subscribe and rate us on iTunes. It really helps a lot.
Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightbur, and additional research support is provided by Johanna Wald. Thanks so much for listening.