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Once Convicted, Forever Doomed: On Civil Death and American Politics

One of my all-time favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. I was fascinated by the story of two men, accused of different crimes in very different circumstances, embarking on a common path toward redemption. I was always puzzled why Morgan Freeman’s character seemed so hesitant to leave when he was released. I didn’t understand how a man who spent most of his formative years fighting for his life behind bars, was now afraid to live freely. What could be so bad that he’d rather be locked up than able to make decisions about life after prison? And then, I went to college.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-DeanDr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

As an eager, somewhat naïve, college sophomore I signed up with a student organization to conduct a canvassing and registration project in the area. We encountered an older gentleman who patiently listened to our prepared remarks before we asked him to register to vote. He shook his head before quietly responding, “I can’t.” We continued to urge him, “Yes you can! It’s your right.” Frustrated with our pestering, he finally told us that he couldn’t because he had been convicted at 19 of stealing a neighbor’s car. Forty years later, that joyride still prohibited him from being eligible to vote in the Commonwealth. Ironically, felony convictions barred people from voting but doesn’t prohibit them from holding public office. I didn’t quite understand why a neighbor who had spent years building a successful business could no longer work in a restaurant after being convicted of writing a bad check. In Virginia, at the time, writing a bad check for $200 was considered a felony. And for the longest, it didn’t make sense that my church member needed donations for moving expenses after her teen aged son left jail and the family could no longer live in the Park Avenue Housing projects. Their diverse experiences were bound by the realization that paying one’s debt to society stretches far beyond prison walls. Collectively, those experiences highlight the tenuous path that people leaving prison face in the United States. From jobs, to housing, to education, to voting, the unique mix of punishment policies in the United States relegates those who break the law to permanent outsider status. And now, as issues of reentry and criminal justice reform have become the topic of discussion amongst longtime activists, celebrities seeking relevance, and political candidates alike, it’s time for a substantive conversation about the consequences of America’s addiction to punishment.

In 1970, a group of attorneys and formerly incarcerated citizens in California formed the United Prisoners’ Union. In its preamble and constitution, the UPU argued that a collection of punitive policies have permanently relegated them to the margins of society:

We the convicts and our people imprisoned and at large throughout the State of California are being subjected to a continuous cycle of poverty, prison, parole, and more poverty … It is more than a game of Crime and Punishment; it is a social condition of inequality and degradation that denies us the opportunity to rise up and pursue a dignified way of life as guaranteed by the UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION. Once convicted, forever doomed has been the practice of this society. We are the first to be accused and the last to be recognized. We are branded the lowest of all people; We are the convicted class.

The Union‘s full statement highlights the cycles of marginalization and exclusion that define the experiences of the formerly incarcerated, while also shaping the life chances of their families and communities. Without a political voice and the rejection of their membership in society, these inmates felt doomed to a permanent position of second-class citizenship even after their release.

Sociologist Orlando Patterson (1982) offers the concept of social death to characterize the position of those who lack power and are absent from independent social life. To Patterson, a slave is simply a person without honor who is denied the opportunity to participate in daily life and relieved of any meaningful connection to the community. Building upon this, the concept of civil death rests as a useful metaphor for understanding the position of individuals and groups who are removed from key spheres of democratic influence and decision-making based on state-sanctioned policies and laws. In my current research project I offer the term civil death to refer to the partial or total loss of political rights such as holding office, serving on juries, and voting. Although the term has traditionally applied to the forced exile imposed during periods of incarceration (Alexander 2010), it is important to consider standing beyond prison walls. Rather than binding individuals together based on some mutually agreed upon social contract, the separation from the body politic imposed by a collection of crime control policies, practices, and guiding principles permanently, and democratically, limits the political presence of individuals and in turn, undermines the cumulative inclusion of communities with disproportionate rates of removal.

Felon disenfranchisement, or the barring of individuals convicted of certain crimes from voting, is deeply rooted in America‘s uneven progress toward democratic development and intimately connected to longstanding racial tensions. Last week as I watched Democratic contenders debate whether inmates should be allowed to vote, I wanted them to properly acknowledge that in 2018, Florida residents voted for a Constitutional Amendment to restore voting to the over 1.5 million formerly incarcerated people in the state. Even more importantly, I wanted them to properly address how the state’s Republican-led legislature recently usurped that power by instituting a new poll tax that requires the formerly incarcerated to pay all fines before regaining access to the ballot. Amendment Four was a milestone accomplishment in a state with one of the most punitive voting rights restrictions for the formerly incarcerated in the country. In spite of suggestions by proponents of disenfranchisement that the restriction is a means of promoting public safety and personal responsibility, the spread of post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement laws across states like Florida, Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina was a direct rebuke of federal efforts to carve out Black citizenship via the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Though we may be far from the historical practice of asking potential voters how many bubbles are in a bar of soap, the legacies of racial exclusion remain. I hope that political candidates, pundits, and so-called progressives will do a better job of reconciling this contentious past with our fractured present.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. Her book, Identity Politics in the United States, will be released by Polity Press in September 2019. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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