Kemba Smith, prisoner #26370-083, is one of the few African American women to have a prison sentence commuted to time-served by former President Bill Clinton in 2000. However, she knows all too well the pitfalls and shame of being a convicted felon.
“Nothing could come closer to being a slave than being incarcerated in this country,” Smith said.
While Black women decidedly ushered in the 2020 Biden-Harris administration, many still could not vote. An estimated 245,925 African American women cannot vote, a rate of 1.92%, or one out of every 50 black women. This rate of disenfranchisement is three times the national average for women.
In Virginia, where Smith was born and raised, the rate is more than one in seven, twice the national average for African Americans. Nearly two-thirds of women in jail in the U.S. are women of color and 44% are Black, 15% are Hispanic, and 5% are of other racial-ethnic backgrounds, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Smith, a first-time offender, received a 24½-year sentence related to drug deals of Michael Hall, her romantic partner at the time. But she is not the only one. A recent study by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that nearly 16% of women in jail are held on drug charges.
“In Oklahoma, the No. 1 incarcerator of women, Susan F. Sharp did multiple five-year studies to understand the drivers behind the high rates of imprisonment,” said Megan Lambert, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma and an advocate for the incarcerated. “She found that the majority of women incarcerated in Oklahoma on low-level drug charges are almost always related to the conduct of their male romantic partners.”
Although Smith’s sentence was commuted after six years, she still delivered her son in prison while shackled to a bed with two correctional officers watching over her at all times — a humiliating and dehumanizing experience that many women face as they go through a system designed primarily for men.
Nearly 80% of women in jails are mothers, though many jail facilities lack the proper care for female needs.
“The conditions of jails are pretty awful,” Lambert said. “Women don’t receive underwear or are given pants with holes in the crotch. Some aren’t provided any menstrual products. The food women are given has no nutrition. When they are finally released, many women have lost 10-20 pounds.”
But the humiliation and shame don’t stop after prison. Although Smith’s sentence ended early, she still couldn’t vote until 2012, more than a decade after her release.
“It hit me the most during former President Obama’s first election that I couldn’t vote in one the most historic elections of our lifetime, it really did affect me,” she said. “My son had asked me, ‘Mommy who are you going to vote for?’ I remember having to explain to him how I couldn’t vote.
“It was just humiliating to live in a household where my son is wondering why his mom can’t vote but he sees me working and volunteering at school,” Smith said.
In 2019, Gov. Ralph Northam reported that his administration restored voting rights for 22,205 Virginians previously convicted of felonies. However, his predecessor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored rights to 173,166, according to a Sentencing Project report.
“You’d think it would be federal law, in the most democratic nation in the world, that once a person has served their debt to society, they should be able to exercise their basic fundamental human right to vote,” Smith said.