The upcoming election counts among one of the most consequential in recent history for many reasons but perhaps none more important than it being the first time that District residents currently incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) have the opportunity to cast a ballot for the candidates of their choice.
But with less than a month until November 3, the question remains whether thousands of D.C. inmates scattered in correctional institutions across the country will receive both the information and documentation necessary to register and exercise their right to vote within the allotted time frame.
For some, like Delonte Wilkins who communicates regularly with incarcerated friends and family members, many factors appear to be at play.
“I don’t think inmates know how to move forward, or have gotten any type of notification outside of whatever [they’ve seen in] the media,” said Wilkins, a local organizer and returning citizen whose focus includes the unjust sentencing of District residents.
Through Link Up It’s Official, an organization he recently launched, Wilkins, a District native currently living in Suitland, has distributed a newsletter to a growing number of D.C. inmates serving time at nearly two dozen federal institutions across the U.S. Additionally, he continues to focus on the restoration of voting rights for D.C. inmates.
“When I first heard about [inmates getting their voting rights restored], I thought how powerful it would be for the community,” Wilkins said while sharing his apprehension about FBOP’s cooperation throughout the process.
“There’s potential for corruption like with anything else. I don’t know how [the FBOP] would safeguard it. You’ve got hundreds D.C. inmates on any compound which means a lot for those candidates in at-large and mayoral races at the least.”
A second emergency police reform bill approved by the D.C. Council in July included legislation that restored voting rights for District residents imprisoned in the FBOP for a felony offense. This milestone placed the District alongside Maine and Vermont as the only U.S. states or jurisdictions allowing incarcerated people to vote.
Even with a provision mandating that the D.C. Board of Elections (DCBOE) provides inmates in federal facilities with a voter registration form, a voter guide, educational material and an absentee ballot, the degree to which FBOP would assist in these efforts had yet to be determined.
By September, the DCBOE had sent over 2,000 ballots to more than 100 federal institutions across the country and DCBOE Director Alice Miller said the board was working with FBOP to ensure that all D.C. inmates serving felonies could mail their absentee ballots well before Nov. 3.
However, many local returning citizens advocates have expressed concerns that leadership at every correctional facility hasn’t done its due diligence in connecting D.C. inmates with the information and resources needed to cast their ballots.
In some circles, conversations have focused on the treatment of D.C. inmates in the federal prisons and how to penalize those acting slowly to disseminate registration forms and ballots. Meanwhile, statehood advocates have argued that the disconnect between the D.C. government and federally controlled institutions highlights the lack of autonomy that the District can currently exercise.
Tony Lewis, Jr., an activist and returning citizens advocate, said inmates with whom he’s spoken, including his father, appear excited to actively engage in the political process. Though they’ve received registration forms, Lewis told The Informer that, given the U.S. Postal Service’s backlog of mail, other inmates across the country might not be as fortunate during the rollout of the initiative.
“It would be much easier if all the D.C. inmates were in one facility but with people being spread out, I just don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Lewis said.
Registered D.C. voters, incarcerated or not, can make their choice for president, vice president and down-ballot candidates running for a bevy of local offices via an absentee ballot, early voting or at the polls on election day, though officials have discouraged against waiting at the last minute. Voters can also weigh in on Initiative 81 which would make policing and prosecution for psychedelic mushrooms a low priority if passed.
During this election season, get-out-the-vote efforts have been highly concentrated in Black communities and battleground states. Organizers like Sinclair Skinner have taken a unique approach by leveraging the District’s increasing population of transplants, many of whom have friends and families in states that decided the 2016 presidential race.
Through his ILoveBlackPeopleGOTV campaign, Skinner has encouraged District residents fitting this profile to call people in their hometowns, particularly those apathetic toward the electoral process, and compel them to participate.
“If we have friends who are D.C. inmates in Pennsylvania, for example, we have to understand this is interconnected,” Skinner said. “We’re facing the same hell and we need a strategy to take that into account. We need to make sure that no matter where we live, we’re concerned about issues directly affecting us.”
“The prison industrial complex was a direct response to integration. This is something that’s been done to attack our generation and we need to act like we understand that interconnectedness as a people,” he added.