a tattered american flag is seen waving through barbed wire in the foreground
(File photo)

We must restore the voting rights of incarcerated Californians

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I couldn’t be more impressed with two bills in the California Legislature that seek to include incarcerated people in voting. 

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4 will return the right to vote to everyone in state and federal prisons in California. Meanwhile, AB 544 will require county jails to have polling places for elections, starting in November 2024. Most people in county jails haven’t been convicted of a crime, so there’s no legal barrier to their right to vote. Both of these bills have been introduced by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles).

I was born in 1965. In 1972, I was in the third grade and learned with a child’s sense of glee about Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement. I learned how Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. How people, mostly Black people, fought for their voting rights and won. How the Voting Rights Act was signed into law the year I was born, which made me feel like my birth and its passing were connected. I learned all this with a child’s mind — a white child living in a white neighborhood where no Black people lived until I was in the eighth grade.

I was born again in 2011, when my husband was sentenced to several years in a federal prison. It wasn’t a religious rebirth, but a coming into new awareness of the Other America. This America gathers as if for a Memorial Day or Fourth of July picnic. There are all kinds of people. Old grandmas with walkers. Toddlers in cute little jeans with diapers poking out the back. Surly teens. Eight-year-olds on the hunt for something to do. Mothers with pinched mouths and bags under their eyes. Priests in starched white collars. Young women with tight shirts and a shimmy in their walk. Brown and Black people make up most of the group, and some are white.

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This America is not here to celebrate. It’s 6:50 in the morning and we are standing outside, in a prison parking lot, in the designated waiting area for visitors. People are cold and will wait for hours with no bathroom and nothing in any pockets except a state ID and one car key, if they are lucky enough to drive here. Some have traveled for three days across the country. Some have moved nearby so they can visit every weekend. Some come once a year. Some come every Sunday. Some have come only once in five years.

Being part of the Other America, I see everything with fresh eyes. I see how my third-grade self got it wrong. How the Civil Rights Movement was not over the year I was born, but had barely begun. How the jail and prison systems reflect our deep failure, as a nation, to enact racial justice. How voting is both a symbol and a fact of power. How denying the vote to incarcerated people is an act of dehumanization that is unnecessary. How laws impact people behind bars. How those reentering will be better fellow citizens by being included in our democracy.

I have been working with incarcerated artists, journalists and activists for the past seven years. I have seen first-hand that when we connect, intersect and build meaningful exchange, all of us are stronger. All of us are safer. All of us are closer to the glory that all human beings are capable of.

Currently, people who are incarcerated can vote only in Maine and Vermont. I look forward to the passage of these two pending state bills so that California steps up to the lead in prison system change. When we restore voting, we enact justice. Rosa would be proud of Assemblymember Bryan for introducing these two bills. And she will be proud when they become law. 

Jo Kreiter
Jo Kreiter

Jo Kreiter is a nationally recognized choreographer and site artist. She works as the artistic director of Flyaway Productions, as a volunteer core leader for Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, and as a member of Essie Justice Group.