Formerly incarcerated mothers are behind a push for voting rights in prison

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Avalon Betts-Gaston of Illinois distinctly remembers her four years in prison through the lens of motherhood.

Even the loss of the right to vote was filtered through thoughts of her two sons: A civically active voter before she was sent to prison for wire fraud, Betts-Gaston found herself unable to participate in the local elections that had consequences for their lives. She felt a disconnect from her community, which she has worked to build back up since being released.

“Should we as a society be telling parents, and mothers in particular, that a conviction equates to you being undeserving of advocating for your children?” she told The 19th. “And to put that another way — that your children are now undeserving of having you, as a parent, advocate for them in one of the ways that you could still do so, even in exile?”

While women are only about 9 percent of the incarcerated population in the United States, their numbers have been growing. A higher percentage of women than men are parents of minor children — 58 percent versus 47 percent of men, according to one survey of people in state and federal prisons. Researchers note that incarcerated mothers are “far more likely” than incarcerated fathers to have been primary caregivers to their children prior to incarceration.

A patchwork of laws determines whether people who are or were in prison can vote in America. Nearly half of states automatically restore voting rights for people released from prison, and a number are considering joining them this year. But some advocates are pushing them to go further and allow anyone incarcerated to vote. Among them are women like Betts-Gaston who talk about their time in prison and how it impacted their roles as mothers. 

Tarra Simmons, a mother of two, struggled to find work after a 30-month sentence for drug and theft convictions, even with a nursing degree. She eventually got a job at Burger King.

“When I got out of prison, I couldn’t afford to pay for housing for my kids because they were garnishing my Burger King paycheck to pay off my court fines,” she said.

At the time, Washington state law stipulated that Simmons could not vote because of her record. She eventually went to law school and in 2020 made history when she became the first formerly incarcerated person to be elected to the Washington state legislature. Within months of her election, she sponsored legislation to restore voting rights to people who are on parole or probation. It was quickly signed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

“Everything I do is centered around my children,” Simmons said. “And if I couldn’t vote, I couldn’t be a legislator now, where I’m able to break down these barriers for other mothers like me.”

In Illinois, where Betts-Gaston is policy director for the Illinois Alliance for Reentry & Justice and is advocating for full restoration of voting rights for people who are currently serving time in prison, an estimated 81 percent of women in state prisons are mothers.

“When you look at voting rights through the lens of people who are mothers and/or primary caregivers, who also identify as women or nonbinary, it takes on a different kind of viewpoint, because what prison does and what incarceration does, it limits the ability of parents to parent effectively,” Betts-Gaston said.

This year, efforts to restore voting rights for people in prison are underway in at least three states that already allow people to vote as soon as they’re out. Lawmakers in Illinois and Oregon are considering legislation to do so, and in California, lawmakers introduced a bill last month that proposes a constitutional amendment to allow people in prison to vote. If it gets enough votes in the statehouse, the measure would go in front of voters.

If any of the proposals are enacted, the legislation would make history. Maine and Vermont allow people in prison to vote, as does Washington, D.C., but no state has ever restored the right after it was taken away.

Many of the restrictions on voting in prison are part of a racist and violent backlash to Reconstruction, a period after the American Civil War when Congress expanded rights for Black Americans. Laura Williamson, associate director of democracy for Dēmos, a racial-justice-focused think tank, said states in the South in particular called constitutional conventions to rewrite their constitutions — in some cases with the explicit intention of establishing white supremacy in the state.

“In their genesis, they’re about preventing Black people in the South from voting,” Williamson said. “So especially in our pursuit of a multiracial, inclusive democracy, these laws can’t exist.”   

Today, Black Americans of voting age are disenfranchised at a rate that is 3.5 times that of non-Black Americans. In 2020, the rate of imprisonment of Black women was 1.7 times that of White women, though that rate of disparity has declined over several years.

Williamson said full voter restoration is the ultimate goal, even if that process may take time as political willpower shifts.

“People talk a lot about rights restoration post-incarceration and post ‘once your time is served.’ From our perspective, democracy means power to the people. In a democracy, any kind of disenfranchisement and taking away people’s right to vote once they have turned legal voting age, that is incongruous with democracy,” she said.

Kyle Colleen Black, who served 26 years in prison for murder and is now a policy associate for Oregon Justice Resource Center, was at the state Capitol this week for advocacy work on several bills involving incarcerated people. For Black, the right to vote is a tool for rehabilitation and gives mothers an opportunity to set an example for their children.

She saw how mothers incarcerated alongside her tried to parent from behind bars: They read to their children over the phone and occasionally did homework with them when children were allowed to visit. For her, voting is an extension of parenting.

“It’s one way to give an example to your children — of what caring about your community, caring about society and caring about who we are in relation to them — is about,” she said.

Black said she is currently estranged from her daughter — it’s part of why she disagrees with lawmakers who fight voter restoration efforts.

“Opposing statements say that you should lose everything when you commit a crime. Really, is that the best way to go about dealing with someone who’s broken the law?” she said. “Because they’re going to go back out into society. And at what point in time do we help people who have problems?”

Whatever happens this year in California, Illinois and Oregon, the movement to restore voting rights for people who previously served time in prison is growing. This month, the New Mexico legislature finalized a wide-ranging voting rights package that included restoring voting rights for people with a felony conviction who are no longer in prison. An estimated 11,000 people are expected to regain voting rights if the bill is signed into law.

Also this month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill into law that will restore voting rights to people on parole, probation or community release with a felony conviction. The law, which goes into effect in July, is expected to restore voting rights to more than 50,000 people.

Dozens of bills on voter restoration for people with felony convictions have been introduced this year in several states, according to the Voting Rights Lab.

While much of the legislation has come from Democrats, some Republicans have also pushed, not always successfully, to allow people out of prison to vote. In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal for a constitutional amendment to change its rules removing a governor’s approval has repeatedly failed in the GOP-controlled legislature; she signed an executive order in 2020 in the meantime aimed at voter restoration.

Many states automatically restore voting rights, while others require a waiting period or for all court fees to be paid. Some people sentenced for certain crimes may lose their rights permanently, and others require approval from a governor. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin this week reversed the policy of a Republican predecessor that gave automatic voting rights to people who served time in prison. 

There are also efforts to make voting in jails more accessible. This legislative session, Simmons in Washington state introduced a bill that would require officials to give people in jails access to voter registration information and access to a ballot at least 18 days before an election.

Simmons keeps pictures of herself in prison, with her visiting kids, in her legislative office.

“Every bill I am fighting for around incarceration definitely centers around my kids and my experience of trying to parent from behind bars,” she said.

Simmons said many of her colleagues in the legislature do not understand the experiences of people who are incarcerated or have been formerly incarcerated. She hopes that changes as she continues to educate them about it.

“It’s a lot of emotional labor, and it’s very hard,” she said. “But I keep going because it’s not just for me and my kids, but it’s for other parents and their kids, too.”

This story was originally published by The 19th

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