Lessons From San Quentin Prisoners Participation in a Mock Election

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The Guardian recently reported on prisoners in San Quentin, the infamous northern California state prison that houses roughly 3,000 incarcerated people, participating in a mock election ahead of this week’s national election. The goal of the mock election was to poll the north block and west block of the prison, a group that makes up 85 percent of the general population, through handmade ballots.

According to the report, roughly one-third of the population was allowed to leave their cells every other day for 90 minutes to shower, make phone calls and go to the prison yard. It was during this period of “release” that they voted in the mock election.

The men of San Quentin voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden by a ratio of 8 to 1 (84 percent). These numbers are a striking indictment of the Trump administration, particularly since much of the criticism of Biden is based on him being the author of the 1994 crime bill, which sparked a boom in mass incarceration for Black and Brown men.

The following are quotes written in by the voters received by The Guardian. These are lessons that those of us who are living freely can take from American citizens who have lost their voting rights:

“I’d like to feel like a citizen; feel like I am important too.”

To be incarcerated in America is to be cast into the shadows of a forgotten citizenry. It is to be counted property and a discarded voice. The lesson is in the value of us lifting our voices because we have not had that ability stripped from us and are able to contribute to the change we seek.

“I want to vote because I want to change our city officials because they are the ones who can make a difference in my community.”

The highest value of our vote is at the local level. It is the decisions we make on our mayors, and city council members, and district attorneys that determine our daily quality of life. The lesson is that investment in our local politics should take priority over the pageantry of presidential elections. We can vote out horrendous public officials at the federal level, but if we are not cognizant of our local vote, we are potentially setting ourselves up for damaging governance within our zip codes.

“As long as there is inequality in America, there will always be a civil rights movement to fill those missing pages of history.”

The work of activists, advocates, and organizers is never-ending because America was structurally created as an inequitable nation. The central idea around voting lies in the prospect of moving this democracy in a more equitable direction. The correlation between the organizer and the politician is the organizers setting the direction for the politician and the politician enacting the will of the organizers, which by extension, is enacting the will of the people.

The lesson being the boots-on-the-ground will always dictate the movement of the patent leather shoes behind the podium. If your preferred candidate has no interest in the will of the people, they have no interest in being of maximum service to your citizenry and therefore, should not be considered when it’s time to cast your vote.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.