When Derrick Washington, a 34-year-old incarcerated in Massachusetts, found a pocket legal dictionary in prison, he decided to memorize every amendment to the United States Constitution. He was particularly struck by the Thirteenth Amendment, which states that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, shall not exist; to him, it codified his status as a “slave of the state of Massachusetts.” Around that time, he said, his prison was not allowing phone calls, and showers were restricted as part of a lockdown. He said he did not understand how administrators were allowed to “treat us how they were treating us.” He was moved to do something about his situation. In 2012, he founded the Emancipation Initiative, an advocacy group that, as one of its priorities, wants all prisoners in the U.S. to be able to vote.
Washington began trying to educate others in his prison about the civic process by walking up to them and asking, “Who represents you?” At first, he said, “they’d be puzzled and say something like, ‘My mom.’” But then he would explain how not being able to vote affects them—for example, when it comes to the high price of prison phone calls. The way Washington saw it, if people in prison had the right to participate in the political process, legislators would view them as a real voting bloc, he told me in a letter from Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Shirley, Massachusetts. He felt that conditions of confinement would then improve, the justice system would change, and prisons might even begin to close. Voting would also help people in prison feel connected to society and value community.
For people who are disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions, however, getting through to their representatives has presented a significant challenge. Lawmakers represent this group, including those still in prison. But they may not feel the need to prioritize the interests of prisoners, because they can’t vote. (The U.S. census counts prisoners where they are incarcerated, though some states have decided to tally prisoners in their pre-incarceration districts for the purpose of drawing political maps.) So Washington wrote templates for letters that people in prison could send to family members and supporters, who in turn could send them to their local representatives. The family members wouldn’t vote for the lawmakers, the letters said, if they didn’t back universal prisoner suffrage and other issues important to their incarcerated loved ones.